Military fiber optics: disheartening darkness

CORNING, N.Y. - The military market for optical fiber, which once looked so promising because of its inherent advantages over conventional communications - higher bandwidth, lower weight, and power requirements, and immunity to electronic countermeasures - is being overshadowed by the booming commercial telecommunications market.

Jun 1st, 1998

Military fiber optics: disheartening darkness

by John Rhea

CORNING, N.Y. - The military market for optical fiber, which once looked so promising because of its inherent advantages over conventional communications - higher bandwidth, lower weight, and power requirements, and immunity to electronic countermeasures - is being overshadowed by the booming commercial telecommunications market.

In fact, it`s more like a total eclipse. The bandwidth requirements for the North American telecommunications industry are doubling every 24 to 30 months, wrote Kevin Able, applications engineer in the Telecommunications Products Division of Corning Inc. in the February issue of Lightwave, sister PennWell magazine to Military & Aerospace Electronics.

Fiber optic networks, originally installed at bit rates of hundreds of megabits per second, are now being upgraded to 10 Gigabits per second - and Able projects single and multiple optical channels of 100 gigabits per second in the next two to three years.

Corning experts, who pioneered optical waveguides in the 1970s and who now divide the local area network (LAN) market with Lucent Technologies in Greensboro, N.C. (about 45 percent apiece), are not turning away military customers, but they are not doing much to encourage them either. They can`t. Corning officials are frantically adding new production capacity to meet the commercial demand, and the military will have to take a number and wait.

Like the semiconductor industry, the production of optical fibers is a continuous process that is heavily volume-dependent. The goal is to achieve high productivity of commodity products that the end users can tailor to their applications. Any diversion of the round-the-clock production to produce small quantities of specialty fibers is disruptive and expensive.

Unless they can fully embrace the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) approach, military officials will have to pay a big premium. Frederic Quan, Corning`s manager of technology acquisition, notes that today`s state-of-the-art dispersion-shifted single-mode fibers with an 8-micron core are selling for 5 to 10 cents per meter. The company produces enough each year not only to circle the earth several times but also to wrap around the earth and the moon, he says.

Military officials, by contrast, have designed the earlier multi-mode technology into their LANs. They are paying about 17 cents a meter for the fibers with a 62.5 micron core and 13 to 14 cents for an improved version with a 50 micron core, explains Douglas Harshbarger, senior market development engineer in the Corning Telecommunications Products Division. The 62.5-micron fibers are actually cheaper on a system basis, even though they have only half to a third of the bandwidth, he adds, because they can use light-emitting diodes rather than the more expensive laser diodes needed at 50 microns.

The costs rise dramatically when additional specifications pile on to meet military specifications. Hildegard DeMallie, sales coordinator for specialty fiber in Corning`s Photonic Technologies Division, recalls that Litton Sperry Marine officials in Charlottesville, Va., were paying $2.75 a meter for evaluation quantities of fibers optimized for towed arrays and planar arrays attached to the hulls of submarines for acoustic sensors. For even more specialized applications, such as down-hole sensors for the oil industry and fiber optic gyros for the automobile industry, prices can soar to $10 to $25 a meter.

A decade ago, before the term COTS was coined, Corning officials joined with such other high technology companies as IBM, Eastman Kodak, Motorola, and Honeywell to form an organization named the Integrated Dual-use Commercial Companies (IDCC) to try to persuade the military to revamp its acquisition process. The group proceeded on two fronts: first, to explore how standard, unmodified commercial products could be designed into weapon systems with the military taking the responsibility for system performance and, second, to change military procurement practices to align them more with commercial procedures.

Quan, then and now a leader in the IDCC, maintains that following these courses would result in reduced costs for the military and a more stable (and thus more profitable) business for industry. Why, for example, do defense contractors have to undergo the scrutinizing audits required by the Cost Accounting Standards Board when the publicly traded companies are already audited by the Securities and Exchange Commission, he asks. The IDCC endures, and so do the questions its members raised.

In the case of optical fibers, the military did employ the technology successfully in a few projects. In the 1970s the Marine Corps` AV-8B Improved Harrier was the first to demonstrate the feasibility of fiber optic LANs within aircraft, and that technology has since been transferred to Boeing`s 777 commercial jets and the Air Force`s F-22 fighter. Navy officials have used fiber optic LANs in their ships, and the Army investigated a fiber optic version of the Tube launched Optically tracked Wire guided missile, known as the Fiber Optic Guided Missile (FOG-M). That idea never caught on, although the Israeli military continues to show interest.

These limited uses still fall far short of the potential of fiber optics to contribute to the proposed revolution in military affairs. The inherent advantages have not diminished any, as the widespread acceptance by the telecommunications industry demonstrates.

If fiber optic LANs and gyroscopic navigation systems can be successfully employed in automobiles, as German and Japanese manufacturers are doing, they should be equally valuable for Army combat vehicles. Despite their disappointing experience with FOG-M, military officials could still cash in on fiber optic-tethered weapons, perhaps for precision munitions or even unmanned aerial vehicles, in which the high-cost information processing subsystems could remain on the ground out of immediate danger from enemy fire.

The severe environments that military forces encounter are not necessarily a barrier. Harshbarger notes that the worst environment is actually commercial: the transoceanic cables that face severe temperature extremes, high pressures, and the constant concern about water leaking into the cables.

The major cabling companies, Siecor, the Corning-Siemens joint venture in Hickory, N.C., for the Corning fibers, and Lucent`s in-house cabling operation, have met this challenge. The problem is the optical connectors, Harshbarger points out. Fiber cables are not easy to service in the field, but this problem can be circumvented, particularly with the use of multi-mode fibers, which do not require such precise connections.

The production base exists to meet future military requirements, but the fiber optic suppliers are adopting the approach Henry Ford took in determining the color of his customers` automobiles: the military can have any kind of fiber it wants as long as it is compatible with the telecommunications industry.

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