Military Embedded Systems

Battling obsolescence in military systems from Earth to space


September 21, 2016

The military no longer drives innovation in electronics, so it must depend on commercial technologies for new capability. However, commercial technology has a dark side - obsolescence. Problems created by obsolete, unreliable, unmaintainable, underperforming, or incapable electronics hardware and software can be resolved via development of advanced technology insertions and applications that help meet Department of Defense (DoD) requirements for quick-reaction capabilities. This response will enable the warfighter to continue to have improved operational readiness, new capabilities, and dramatically enhanced performance through the application of advanced technologies and sophisticated engineering techniques.

Over the past several decades, the explosion in demand for consumer electronics in computing, feature-laden smartphones, and increased connectivity of anything that contains a microchip has driven an unparalleled shortening of the development lifecycle in the microelectronics industry – commonly known as Moore’s law. While Moore’s law can be traced back to the early 1970s with the production of early microprocessors, a significant shift to products and designs with substantially shortened technology-refresh targets took place in the mid-2000s.

This shift has proven to be very profitable for commercial technology companies across a variety of industries, including laptops, cellphones, printers, cameras, televisions, and wearables. Also seen: an explosion of new concepts with the idea of connectivity using the Internet of Things (IoT). To illustrate this point, microelectronics production has seen an explosion in demand over the last decade, leading to global semiconductor-market sales of more than $335 billion in 2015.

Consequently, most new technology developments and innovations in microelectronics are now exclusively driven by commercial companies for purely commercial applications. Technology development is now driven by short-turn product refresh rates, because that is where the largest sales volumes with the larger chip manufacturers reside. As a result, the industry is seeing older technology nodes reaching end-of-life (EOL) earlier than previous generations, in order to make room for the next greatest thing. This turn of events also diminishes the need for developing fundamental technologies and designs with extended reliability lifetimes, which, in turn, could also help to reduce product costs for commercial markets. An additional consequence of this change is that pricing pressure in these markets has led to corporate consolidations and migrations of production so that a majority of microchip production is now being produced outside of the United States.

As this global market force has solidified, it has created many challenges for the DoD. One of the most daunting challenges is how to handle and manage obsolescence of electronics hardware and software for the warfighter. Unlike the commercial electronics market, the DoD will sponsor programs that can range from years to decades. For example, the B-52 bomber was originally awarded in 1946 and is projected to be in service into the 2040s. While this instance may represent an extreme case for program lives, it is not uncommon for larger DoD programs to extend for several decades. As these systems age, the electronic and software systems within them will become obsolete over time and will eventually become unreliable, unmaintainable, unserviceable, underperforming, or nonfunctional, leaving the warfighter at risk of losing superiority on the battlefield.

The lifetime buy

Multiple approaches have been adopted by both the supply-chain community and DoD in battling obsolescence. Each method has its own advantages and risks. Generally, the simplest and most common solution adopted is the lifetime buy. With this approach, lifetime purchases of at-risk electronics are either prepurchased at the beginning of the program or at a future date when the item is at risk of becoming obsolete. While simple in its approach, this methodology carries substantial risk: Can the program estimate the appropriate quantities needed until an appropriate upgrade is required, will there be proper long-term storage of the material to ensure future functionality, and will new technology development damage reliability and accelerate obsolescence? This lifetime-buy methodology requires substantial funding upfront, with the risk that the material may never be used.

Standard platforms and flexible designs

Military and space systems are continually migrating to next-generation architectures to both combat obsolescence and leverage investments in infrastructure from the commercial sector. Examples of this approach are OpenVPX (military), SpaceVPX (satellite), VITA standards, and Controller Area Network (CAN), used in automotive, military, and space applications. The CAN bus standard (Figure 1) is a good example of a DoD system leveraging a commercial bus standard found in all modern automobiles. Adoption of such a broad-use standard will allow the DoD to take advantage of the collective design and development efforts made globally while still allowing for their own customization.

While the initial investment in open standards can challenge budgets, it enables the military and space community to use advanced technologies to meet their ever-changing missions and puts in place a standardized platform for the industry. It enables them to drive companies to those platforms to create more effective competition and utilize more “off-the-shelf” hardware available from a number of sources, which, in general, are available for longer periods of time. This shift helps make systems more affordable and portable in the long run, versus traditional proprietary architectures that are developed by individual contractors.


Figure 1: The Cobham CAN FD transceiver family is radiation-tolerant and high-reliability, aimed at use in spacecraft sensor, telemetry, and command-and-control applications.




Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were originally developed by the Naval Surface Warfare Center in the early 1980s to enable a reprogrammable computer. Since that time, the FPGA market has seen substantial growth due to significant use throughout the telecommunications and networking industries, which has allowed it to achieve scaling similar to the effect of Moore’s law in the microprocessor industry. FPGAs have been a key enabler to combat obsolescence in military and space systems, as they enable systems to be procured early and configured along the development cycle with the software/firmware being supported long past the typical commercial product time scale. FPGAs are flexible by design, so they can be adapted in the field or even after being launched in space. The devices also enable rapid prototyping and initial system deployment while an advanced technology node application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) is being developed on a commercial foundry for long-term system product availability as well as overall program cost savings.

Flexible and fast procurement

Another significant challenge that the DoD faces in battling obsolescence is the procurement process required under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), a well-established process that is used and understood across the industry for DoD acquisition. The FAR, however, can be time-consuming and expensive. To address these concerns, the government has established programs and indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicles designed to give the DoD and other agencies streamlined access to state-of-the-art technologies and engineering capability for the purpose of research and development and obsolescence mitigation.

One program designed for this purpose is the Defense Microelectronic Activity’s (DMEA) Advanced Technology Support Program IV (ATSP4). Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions (CAES) is the newest awardee on this program, along with seven other leading defense industry contractors – BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics, Honeywell International, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. The eight performers selected for ATSP4 have been prequalified by DMEA, which allows any government agency to have a performer on contract for an IDIQ within four weeks, which can result in as long as 18 months of cycle time reduction. The $7.2 billion ATSP4 mechanism focuses on rapid acquisition for development activities that are going to enable the warfighter to continue to overcome these obsolescence challenges. This contract vehicle enables each of the eight prime contractors to focus on getting next-generation systems developed quickly and economically while also focusing on size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) reductions to help all the branches of the DoD maintain and grow their superiority in all domains of warfare.

Working together

The explosion of the global commercial electronics business over the past 20 to 30 years has led to countless innovations that have been leveraged across all the branches of the DoD that would likely not have been possible without the growth in today’s mobile and computing consumer markets. One of the drawbacks to such a relationship is the ever-growing risk of obsolescence mitigation. To tackle this complex dynamic problem, the DoD and the defense community are working together to develop solutions such as standard platforms, flexible designs, and agile procurement vehicles that allow for rapid response to ensure warfighter superiority today, tomorrow, and far into the future.

Michael Newman is a technical fellow at Cobham Semiconductor Solutions. He received his PhD in physics in 2000 from the University of Connecticut and is currently a technical fellow and deputy director of the ATSP4 (Advanced Technology Support Program IV) for Cobham Semiconductor Solutions. He has more than 16 years of experience in commercial and defense semiconductor development, including work at Tessera, Intel, and General Dynamics. Readers may reach him at [email protected].

Paul Armijo is Senior Program Director, ATSP4 at Cobham Semiconductor Solutions. He has over 17 years in the industry and has been a director and senior program director with Cobham/Aeroflex since 2013. He previously held positions with General Dynamics, Ball Aerospace and Technology, Spectrum Astro, and Motorola. Paul holds a BSE in electrical engineering from Arizona State University. Readers may reach Paul at [email protected].

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