Military Embedded Systems

Commonality and reduced SWaP drive vetronics designs


May 03, 2013

John McHale

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Budget cuts and changing strategic priorities have slowed the military vetronics market to one that is flat for the foreseeable future. However, innovation in electronics design has not slowed, as military embedded system suppliers develop creative ways to introduce more commonality in components to navigate the budget-constrained environment and continue to meet reduced Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) requirements.

“To go up against [German Gen. Erwin] Rommell we need the best tank man we’ve got,” said Karl Malden in the role of Gen. Omar Bradley in the movie “Patton.” He was referring to the title character – Gen. George S. Patton – and foreshadowing his genius in tank warfare, which eventually led to allied victory in WW II. Good tank commanders are still needed today but not with nearly the strategic importance of 70 years ago. As the U.S. pulls back from two ground wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, its global military footprint will comprise more unmanned systems, cyber warfare, and electronic intelligence gathering than ground troops and vehicles. Less troops on the ground means fewer tanks going into battle with new tank and vehicle platforms likely to be put on hold for decades.

Special Forces programs, unmanned vehicle platforms, and C4ISR technology will dominate the near-term DoD funding priorities. Some of these programs – especially Special Forces – will require state-of-the-art vetronics technology, mostly through retrofits. Large Army tank deployments, funding of new tactical vehicle programs, and even new versions of HMMWVs [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles] are likely to be put on hold or canceled all together.

“The vetronics market is effectively flat to declining, says Wayne Plucker, Industry Manager at Frost & Sullivan. “The Army is planning to reduce tank rebuild to minimum sustainment levels. The last of the new build, Strykers was produced last year. The Army is effectively done building new ground vehicle platforms. The Ground Combat Vehicle and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) programs are likely to be delayed or stretched out. There will be necessary spending on refits for returning vehicles, but that will not have the market pickup that it once was estimated to have.” Last fall Plucker says the value of the vetronics market was at about $900.3 million. There was a small increase in vetronics funding, but it was less than initially estimated, as reduced spending was mandated within DoD, he says. “The move to standards will still be needed, but likely delayed or stretched out. Also the airpower and UAV asset use will probably have some effect on ground vehicles, but I think that will be mostly based on doing more with less and delaying deployments where possible. The principal growth will be in the RDT&E budget, not in procurement. One funding area that will essentially remain fluid is Special Forces operations. The Special Operations Command (SOCOM) will still have the ability to buy what they want when they want. Their program spending is dynamic, while TACOM spending is more predictable.”

“Sequestration has hit the large iron manufacturers the hardest as there are less vehicles being built,” says Doug Patterson, Vice President of Military Business Development at Aitech in Chatsworth, CA. “Sequestration has hit us indirectly by adding uncertainty as to the direction of defense funding. Many integrators are holding on to their money until they get more direction. The vetronics market is slow as there are no new programs on the horizon, and upgrades and refreshes will be more incremental in nature.”

“Budget constraints drive commonality,” which is advantageous on the front end but also on the back end of electronics systems as well, says Bill Guyan, Vice President at DRS Network and Imaging Systems in Melbourne, FL. “It is a big cost saver when it comes to supportability.” Nearly every single component, equipment, and system comes with its own manual and requires uniquely trained personnel to field and install each device, which gets very expensive, he continues. “If the same component or computer can be used across multiple platforms, it will create huge savings on the back end. That is just at the hardware level.” Software supportability costs can scale even higher when maintaining software baselines and enabling security for trusted computing, Guyan adds.

“Commonality reduces the training burden and greatly increases operational flexibility,” says Andrew Shepherd, Product Manager at General Dynamics Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. “With common displays, a crew can move from one platform to another, interfacing with the vehicle’s systems and C4ISR applications through this common display. In addition, leveraging the combined investments made by multiple customers helps to reduce through-life costs of the system and mitigates obsolescence risks by drawing on a larger supply base. [Another] trend is the recognition of the need for operational redundancy. Combat vehicles with a central computer, hosting various vehicle information and C4ISR systems while driving a number of displays, have a single point of failure. If the one central computer fails, the operational effectiveness of the platform is severely compromised. Networked smart displays enable any application to be run from any position and allow crews to share 360-degree situational awareness. These smart displays allow the driver to see what the gunner sees through his sights or all crew members to see a live UAV video feed.”

“Themis is still investing its own money in development of goods and services for the vetronics market,” says Bill Ripley, Director, Business Development, Tactical Systems at Themis Computers in Fremont, CA. “We feel that there is a lower likelihood of funding being eliminated for vetronics programs, both for new and recapitalized vehicles. The requirement won’t go away, but the funding might slip to the right a bit. There is a real need in the Army and Marine Corps for vetronics systems, and because these systems lagged the aviation community, there are fewer “Plan B” options available. The world of military ground vehicles is changing at a very fast pace. The customer is demanding more and more integration, while trying to drive down the acquisition costs of the vehicles. An Army acquisition officer told me that compared to their aviation counterparts, the vetronics community wants F-16 functionality at Cessna 150 prices. The vetronics market and integrated battlefields are requiring systems that don’t cost very much and [can] be architected in such a way as to be able to deal with an evolving threat.”


Commonality across multiple platforms also is a cornerstone of the U.S. Army’s Vehicular Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) initiative. VICTORY provides interoperability at the subsystem level, enabling subsystems from different manufacturers to work together in one system and across multiple platforms via standard connectors and well-defined electrical interfaces.

“Commensurate with VICTORY, budget issues have forced prime contractors to try to find creative ways to still meet their requirements in this funding-constrained environment,” says John Ormsby, Business Development Director for Ground Defense at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions in Charlotte, NC. “As a result, programs like Stryker came out with a vehicle network requirement – which is what VICTORY was designed to help meet. We believe the market is driving toward this trend.”

“The VICTORY architecture is being developed to facilitate the integration of C4ISR systems into ground vehicles,” Shepherd says. “Historically, ground vehicles have adopted a bolt-on approach for C4ISR capability, which results in problems with size, weight, and power. VICTORY provides a framework architecture, standard specifications, and design guidelines to enable the integration of C4ISR systems directly into the platform. General Dynamics supports the development of the VICTORY standards and participated in both the Information Assurance and Networking working groups. In addition, our products are compliant with VICTORY standards. One example is our Smart Display product, which consolidates the interface to different systems, both classified and unclassified, onto a common display solution (Figure 1).”


Figure 1: A Canadian soldier receives information on a General Dynamics Canada Smart Display during Family of Land Combat Vehicles (FLCV) capability demonstrations.

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“The activity in the VICTORY community has picked up, and remains at a high level,” Ripley says. “The standard development has progressed quickly and in a focused manner, with few hiccups and false starts. There has been unprecedented cooperation between the government and industry, with players like Themis being able to bring good ideas to the table and have them considered and even adopted. From our vantage point, more and more programs are requiring VICTORY compliance. The only unknown is what version of VICTORY will be the baseline for a particular program.”

“VICTORY callouts and specifications are starting to show up in request for proposals,” says David Jedynak, Chief Technical Officer for COTS Solutions at Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions. “We are starting to see VICTORY penetration into the tactical fleet such as the JLTV and the modernization of the Bradley and Abrams platforms. The biggest advantage of VICTORY is the integration capability: Vetronics and C4I systems were traditionally built separately, but now they can be integrated through VICTORY. The government wants to reduce the overall dollar per mile with each vehicle. This is the overall larger metric that takes account of a number of factors such as sustainability, fuel costs, and a number of other things. VICTORY enables this by leveraging commonality in the vetronics system that reduces the footprint and has a higher MTBF. Our main way of meeting minimal VICTORY requirements is through the Digital Beachhead (Figure 2), which meets the minimal requirements for VICTORY and has all the basic pieces – such as databus, switch management service interfaces, CAN buses for automotive interfaces, and a number of other pieces that help vehicle integrators easily drop in VICTORY functionality without going through a major overhaul of the vehicle electronics.” The system also comes with an integrated Vehicle Management computer that has HUMS/CBM+ system health services.


Figure 2: The Digital Beachhead from Curtiss-Wright Controls Defense Solutions meets the minimal requirements for VICTORY and has all the basic pieces – such as databus, switch management service interfaces, and CAN buses for automotive interfaces to enable easy drop in VICTORY functionality.

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Reducing SWaP

Whether a program calls out VICTORY requirements or not, nearly every program manager demands reductions in SWaP with their vetronics systems. Replacing a six-box vetronics system with a single-box solution containing modern processors not only enables SWaP, but also enhances C4ISR capability and the smaller footprint provides integrators with more room to store equipment or to just make the vehicle lighter.

“Reduced SWaP also is enabled by grouping a number of components into one box – hosting functions that are independently running on one piece of hardware over network protocols,” Jedynak says. “The system is taking on more of a network mindset where the physical block diagram and the functional block diagram cease to be dependent on one another. You can place 10 cards in 1 box and 10 in another; when building a distributed network concept, it doesn’t matter how you’ve built it, rather that it is interoperable.”

“Rugged smart displays meet this need by integrating more capability into a smaller package and replacing the need for separate computer modules, video distribution boxes, and video display screens while significantly reducing the cabling necessary to integrate the disparate components,” Shepard says.

Engineers at DRS Tactical Systems are solving SWaP issues in Special Operations vehicles with their C4InSight solution, which includes a Data Distribution Unit (DDU) and Mission Command Software Suite (MCSS) that are interoperable with existing platform displays and computers. The DDU is half the size of the DRS JV-5 Block 2 Rugged Vehicle System that is used in Army vehicles, Guyan says. It can be deployed on a platform as a tactical router, as a battle management system computer, or as a hub to distribute video and voice data, he adds.

It was produced to meet the C4ISR management requirements of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Family of Special Operations Vehicles (FOSOV) and is consistent with VICTORY and USSOCOM’s Mobile Distributed C4ISR Architecture (MDCA) objectives, according to DRS. The solution enables integrators to remove four or five different boxes off a space-constrained platform such as Army tracked combat vehicles and replace them with one box, improving the total power budget, as well as total size and weight availability as you are removing other equipment off the vehicle as well when you remove the boxes, Guyan says.

Distributed architectures

“Vetronics integrators still want smaller SWaP, but still want levels of performance they are used to, so we are pushing the envelope,” Patterson says. “The move toward a distributed architecture has not hit its stride yet as the integrators are still happy with [a] large central-computer-based architecture.”

Several factors have driven the vetronics community to a distributed computing architecture such as “smaller bite-sized integration efforts, more common hardware, and inherent system redundancy,” Ripley says. “Products that lend themselves to extensibility and a distributed architecture ultimately reduce schedule and development risk, as well as the cost to the customer. For example, our NanoSWITCH product can be as simple as a ‘dumb’ layer 2 switch, or extended to be a layer 3 switch/router. Its functionality is extensible in that a Single Board Computer (SBC) and optional CAN Bus and MIL-STD-1553 interfaces can be added to allow for Ethernet to vehicle or tactical data bus gateway functionality. The SBC can be used as a system controller, bus gateway, firewall, or security processor. A SAASM GPS also can be integrated in the switch to give Precision Time Protocol (PTP) control, synchronization, and orientation.”

The VITA 74 SBC can turn a dumb vetronics display into a smart display by using a removable and replaceable conduction-cooled processor, which enables a display’s expensive electronics to be gutted in minutes and reused with a touch screen or upgraded/repurposed by changing modules, he adds.

VITA standards and vetronics

Standards from VITA such as 3U VPX and the VITA 74 small form factor specification are also enabling the SWaP advantages in military vetronics retrofits. There are opportunities for 3U VPX-based systems in those upgrades as they solve some of the SWaP challenges. For vetronics applications, Aitech offers their Corei7 Haswell C873 product, which is available in 3U CompactPCI and VPX formats (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Aitech’s Corei7 Haswell C873 product is available in 3U CompactPCI and VPX formats.

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“In the heavy vehicle area, there is an increase in 3U VPX adoption with 6U VPX typically being used only for ISR or EW gear,” Jedynak says. “Mission management, battle command, and other various systems in the vehicle are all being run on 3U VPX systems. Tactical vehicles, on the other hand, are not embracing modular architectures as they have tighter SWaP-C requirements so it doesn’t make sense. People are looking for a smaller form factor in these applications, but not necessarily open standard SFF boxes. We have designed a small form factor Intel solution that is compliant with the UK Generic Vehicle Architecture and can meet tactical vehicle needs.”

“The VITA 74 systems have found favor in the vetronics marketplace because they offer a standards-based solutions at prices often 50 percent less than similar 6U VME/VPX or custom form factor solutions, without compromising environmental specification compliance,” Ripley says. “Staying with the standards ensures that the customer could have multiple sources to choose from, which itself promotes innovation and drives down acquisition costs. VITA 74 makes it much easier to offer highly rugged, high-performance computing, storage, and switching subsystems for vetronics applications. The volumes associated with vetronics programs offered a much better incentive to the system manufacturers to build systems with increased capabilities at reduced costs, and the aviation community, as well as the commercial marketplace, will reap the benefits.”