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DoD Budget Cuts Reshape Military Electronic Design

Few factors are shaping the military electronics industry more than recent DoD budget cuts. Leaders of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) propose spending $13.59 billion in federal fiscal year 2013 for procurement and research in military communications, electronics, telecommunications, and intelligence (CET&I) technologies. This level would represent a cut of 10.26 percent from current-year enacted levels of $15.14 billion, and a cut of 23.43 percent from 2011 levels of $17.75 billion. Since the military is reluctant to compromise on the quality or capabilities of the electronics used on the battlefield, manufactures are tasked with devising offerings that can meet the military’s stringent budgetary and engineering requirements.

DoD Opts for COTS Solutions

With conservative budgets in tow, the military is shying away from lengthy custom development contracts and is conversely favoring the use of existing COTS electronics as much as possible to extend the life of legacy programs. By designing electronics that can be used in multiple applications, satisfy size, weight and power (SWaP) requirements and provide more multi-function solutions, COTS suppliers are quickly gaining traction within many DoD programs.

One of the design techniques implemented by many COTS systems suppliers to help mitigate shrinking DoD budgets is modularity. A sought-after feature in today's military electronics, modular designs provide superior longevity and flexibility as subassemblies can be upgraded in the future without a complete system redesign–an especially attractive feature to organizations faced with tightening budgets.

Taking a cue from the “Lego-like” stacking architecture of PC/104, the mechanical design for many of today’s modular computing systems maximizes the flexibility of a rugged COTS subsystem. These designs incorporate a modular rugged enclosure with building block chassis segments that have pre-integrated card sets, along with MIL connector interfaces and optimized thermal management devices. Depending on customer requirements, a particular functional card set can be configured for stand-alone use—for instance as a computer, router, or Ethernet switch—or attached to each other and consolidated within a single, compact mechanical solution. Compared to the traditional approach of working around a fixed-sized box with a pre-defined number of open card slots, this modular approach provides greater flexibility, superior technology reuse and provisions for mechanical adaptations. 

Ruggedized Systems Prove Cost-Effective & Efficient

Another budget-friendly option for many DoD programs is “ruggedized” systems. Rather than designing new electronics from the ground up (a costly and time-consuming procedure), some products make use of existing technologies, such as computer networking appliances, and hardens them for expanded use cases. This offers a robust, yet cost-effective computing choice engineered to meet today’s military requirements.

For example, One of Cisco Systems’s latest L2/L3 Ethernet switches, the IE-3000, recently proved to be an ideal ruggedization candidate for military use, as this switch was originally designed for industrial Ethernet applications, including factory automation, energy and process control and intelligent transportation systems (ITSs). While its intended commercial use already exceeded traditionally benign enterprise environments, Parvus engineers further ruggedized Cisco’s commercial IE-3000 switch (later called the DuraNET 3000) with IP67 ingress protection against dust/water, along with military-grade connectors, EMI filtering and shock/thermal enhancements so that this unit can be deployed in demanding military IP networking technology refresh applications.

By adopting ruggedized Cisco network switching and routing solutions, the government can provide a cost-effective method for implementing the latest networking technology while still meeting their rigorous environmental standards. Such devices deliver the needed reliability, while also running the same Cisco IOS software and feature sets that IT specialists are already trained to operate.

Application Engineering Reduces Risk, Cost and Time-to-Market

As government contracts continue to call out increasing percentages of COTS products, prime systems integrators and their subcontractors alike are rushing to identify “off-the-shelf” solutions that can be implemented across multiple programs- reducing costly solutions that require non-recurring engineering fees. As a result, more and more standard product platform solutions are designed with a considerable capacity for future expansion and flexibility. Many companies, however, lack the staff to modify products in-house and tailor them to specific program requirements. Application engineering groups at Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) fill this void by assisting system builders with application-optimized, turnkey solutions that reduce development time while increasing customer interface and feedback, ultimately lowering the costs of modifications.

One example was a customer involved in a ground penetrating radar application for improvised explosive device detection in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. The solution employed Parvus DuraCOR mission computers and integrated specific third-party I/O cards along with the customer's application software and their own production resources. Developers took advantage of application engineering services with Parvus to reduce production overhead and improve efficiencies. This allowed the customer to meet their needs for a time while demand was building for their vehicle-mounted mine detection solution.

Once demand picked up for their mine sweeping solution, however, the customer tapped Parvus’ application engineering and production services to provide a turnkey system, complete with the integrated third-party cards. As the manufacturer of the box, it was ultimately more efficient and cost-effective to have Parvus integrate the added I/O at time of manufacture, troubleshoot any issues at the factory, perform burn-in testing, do environmental stress screening and deliver a tested solution ready to deploy. As a result, this has reduced in-field fallout for the customer and is enabling them to experience faster time to deployment and reduced ongoing support costs.

Military Electronics Suppliers Prepared to Meet Challenges

The DoD’s budget constraints are requiring today’s electronic suppliers to do more with less. By leveraging the benefits of COTS technologies and modifying existing solutions to meet military needs, electronic manufacturers are delivering rugged computing systems to fulfill budget and mission objectives.

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