Industry outlook after Iraqi Freedom: evolutionary hardware refinements

Even as military operations continued in Iraq, leaders of the military electronics industry could take pride in their role, but they remain wary about the future.

Jun 1st, 2003
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John Rhea
"The recent war in Iraq "hasn't created gobs of orders, but it has accelerated some programs."
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BALTIMORE — Even as military operations continued in Iraq, leaders of the military electronics industry could take pride in their role, but they remain wary about the future.

The leaders had much to talk about — and demonstrate — at this year's Military & Aerospace Electronics Show (including COTSCON) April 23-24 at the Baltimore Convention Center in conjunction with the initial Homeland Security Solutions conference and exhibit.

The consensus was that Operation Iraqi Freedom, as is typically the case with such military operations, was a come-as-you-are affair and that available hardware was pressed into service to tackle immediate needs. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this pudding got high marks from conference attendees.

The comments about the conflict by Douglas Patterson, director of marketing at Vista Controls Corp. in Santa Clarita, Calif., were typical: "It hasn't created gobs of orders, but it has accelerated some programs." He cited the U.S. Army's Future Combat System, noting that requests for proposals were issued quickly and called for a rapid turnaround.

Another sleeper in Iraq, which didn't get the attention of more visible programs, was the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), according to Patterson. Nonetheless, Patterson concluded that he didn't see anything in Iraq that he hadn't seen before in Afghanistan.

Duncan Young, director of marketing at Dy 4 Systems in Kanata, Ontario, says he agrees. "The last three months have made a significant difference to our business," he commented, but he expressed concern about future requirements.

These tend to occur in cycles of two years or more, Young noted, and at this moment he didn't see any new applications that would trigger changes to the existing order of military procurement. The one area he said might receive more attention after Iraqi Freedom is improvements to the identification, friend or foe (IFF) capability to minimize friendly fire incidents.

"We had hoped for a gigantic jump, but it hasn't happened yet," added Ronnie Sanford, a sales manager at Houston-based VMETRO. Instead, he cited "small spikes" for high technology items amongst the expendable "bullets and butter" needs of any military operation.

In assessing the lessons of Iraqi Freedom, Sanford focused on improved electronics for the Tomahawk cruise missile, radar systems, communications intelligence (COMINT), and UAVs. He was particularly optimistic about UAVs, noting that Iraq had been a proving ground for concepts that military planners had been dubious about prior to the conflict.

Along these lines, Rodger Hosking, vice president of Pentek Inc. in Upper Saddle River, N.J., focused on signals intelligence (SIGINT), a business he said did pick up as a result of the operations in Iraq. The need is to build on today's narrow band digital receivers to intercept voice and other messages, according to Hosking.

The conference attendees did more than talk about the lessons learned from Iraqi Freedom; they brought and demonstrated hardware from the conflict during a special session in the exhibit area hastily organized after the conference began.

Among the participants at this session was Vista's Doug Patterson, who discussed the role of a mission control computer employing the latest-generation PowerPC microprocessor and sized to fit an air transport rack (ATR) location in the Global Hawk UAV. The computer aided the UAV in performing reconnaissance missions at altitudes as high as 65,000 feet.

Similar technology was employed in the M1A2 Abrams tank, using reduced instruction set computing (RISC) for digital signal processing to enable the soldiers to point their guns while the tanks were bouncing along rutted roadways, according to Patterson, and in a single-board computer for fire control and stabilization to fire missiles from other ground vehicles.

Frank Willis, vice president for business development of the Government Group at SBS Technologies in Warrenton, Va., also stressed the role of single-board computers, citing applications in mine detection, IFF based on an airborne digital transponder, and 1553 databuses used in ground and air platforms, including the F-16 fighter.

Gene Parker, business development manager at the Melbourne, Fla., operations on England-based Radstone Technology Corp., surveyed the predominance of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics used by all three services in Iraq, stressing that these were successes for the conduction-cooled VME boards.

His list of U.S. Navy successes included electronic countermeasures on the carrier-based EA-6B Prowler aircraft; the targeting pod on the F/A-18 Hornet fighter-bomber, which detected targets at distances out to 35 miles; and the vertical launch of cruise missiles at sea using COTS boards in the control unit.

Similar boards were used by the U.S. Air Force in the Predator UAV, in the air vehicle and in the ground-based controller, and in the Joint STARS high-altitude surveillance aircraft.

Bob Woodward, division director for tactical communications at Innovate Concepts, cited a first in Iraqi Freedom for the Army's Fourth Infantry Division, which he said was the first to be entirely digitized with both air and land assets. "Every vehicle has a computer," he said, "and this minimizes fratricide."

But the big advantage of these COTS boards is that they support interoperability in the critical function of situational awareness, according to Woodward. This had been tried first in Bosnia and Kosovo, using the Joint STARS, and then extended in Iraq. Even the aging B-52 bombers will be refitted with COTS boards, he disclosed.

The picture that emerges from the Baltimore conference is that these are real world products meeting real world needs. On the assumption that those needs aren't going to disappear anytime soon, it logically follows that the next generations of weapon systems will be evolutionary improvements to those that answered the call in Iraq.

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