SWaP: how size, weight, and power are transforming the military electronics industry

It's ironic that one of the few growth areas in the U.S. defense industry these days involves making things smaller, but this is the world we live in now. While demand for military aircraft, tanks, and ships appears to be on a steady decline, small is where it's at.

I know you're dreading it, but I'll say it anyway: SWaP (you can uncover your ears now). It's that ubiquitous term you can't escape that refers to electronic systems that are small in size, weight, and power consumption. Why the obsession with small SWaP? A lot of it has to do with sophisticated electronics small enough for unmanned vehicles. Another is placing computer power, displays, communications, and sensors on an already overburdened infantryman. Overall, today's focus on small, lightweight electronic systems that don't use much power has to do with bringing as much capability to the forward edge of battle as possible.

That's at the heart of SWaP directives from the top, anyway. Industry has got the message loud and clear, and now it seems that every discussion of military technology is in the context of SWaP.

The topic of SWaP has become so pervasive that, let's face it, people are sick of hearing about it. I'm as guilty as anyone with other SWaP-related blog posts just this month alone. Still, the importance of SWaP, and the way SWaP issues are transforming the aerospace and defense electronics industry are profound and ought not to be ignored-even at the expense of inducing nausea at the mere thought of the term.

It's almost as if new military technology development has to involve SWaP even to be relevant. SWaP is a cornerstone of industry marketing campaigns and strategies. Don't take my word for it; just look at nearly any new product announcement in our industry these days.

Pretty soon, I predict, the term SWaP will be so much a part of the fabric of the aerospace and defense electronics industry that we no longer need to mention it; SWaP issues simply will be assumed as part of any new technology development.

Believe it or not, we've seen all this before with other all-consuming industry terms. Remember COTS?

That term, short for commercial off-the-shelf, came into fashion two decades ago in the first term of the Bill Clinton Administration. Clinton's secretary of defense, William Perry, essentially coined the term to describe military technologies borrowed from the commercial electronics industry and adapted to military applications. The idea then was for the U.S. military to quit re-inventing the wheel and draw from an ever-deepening well of commercially developed technology.

COTS described a revolutionary concept back in those days; today it's a no-brainer. Graphics processors adapted to massively parallel embedded computing, commercial flat-panel TV technology in combat information centers, radiation-hardened versions of PC microprocessors, and the list goes on.

SWaP news comes out at least weekly, sometimes even daily. One of the latest is government research concern for Common Data Link (CDL) radios small enough for hand-launched aerial drones. Technology is headed in the same direction for warfighters on the ground.

What might SWaP mean for tomorrow? Perhaps mechanical fleas designed not only to spy on the adversary, but also to render him combat-ineffective after he does mad with itching.

Perhaps then SWaP will become a verb, and we'll describe a defeated enemy as SWaPped.

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