High-Flying Defense Systems Poised To Take Off

June 16, 2003
More than ever, it's about technology.

More than ever, it's about technology. Defense electronics is getting much of the credit for winning the war in Iraq and, partly as a result, technology spending will grow faster than the Pentagon's overall budget. Just about 19% of total defense spending in FY2004 is dedicated to electronics, and the Government Electronics & Information Technology Association expects this to reach 19.6% in 2012.

The scenes have become familiar: American soldiers moving on foot through the featureless desert of Iraq; stopping occasionally to check their coordinates on a portable Global Positioning System (GPS); communicating through lightweight hands-free radios; poring over digital maps on ruggedized notebook-size computer-maps made from satellite photos; and surveying enemy positions through helmet-mounted night-vision goggles, while precision-guided weapons drop from undetected stealth aircraft.

In fact, precision-guided weapons accounted for about 67% of the munitions dropped on Iraq, compared with only 9% in the Persian Gulf War just 12 years ago, making precision target identification one of the most important development and procurement programs in the U.S. arsenal. Several programs are currently under way to improve precision targeting even further. One program, called Jigsaw, is aimed at building a laser radar sensor. It includes the development of video verification and identification (VIVID), a new concept that the DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is exploring for target identification in visible and infrared motion imagery.

Jigsaw's objective is to design and build an imaging laser radar device to produce very high-resolution, 3D, volumetric target data. This would enable the detection and identification of targets day or night as well as through foliage, camouflage, and even windows. For the first time, commanders in the field will be able to look beyond the target at the surrounding area.

Another critical element in DoD planning is GPS, which has been around since the 1950s. In fact, 18 of the 28 GPS satellites now in orbit (including spares) are overdue for replacement. The Air Force launched two new GPS satellites in January and April and has another 13 in development, but it lacks the Delta rockets to put them in orbit. Also, the next generation of GPS satellites (known as GPS III), which are being designed to be even more accurate than current models, as well as virtually jam-proof, isn't expected to fly until at least 2012. (The European Union, which was never happy about having to rely on a system owned and operated by the U.S. military, is preparing to spend $3.7 billion to orbit its own satellite-navigation system, called Galileo, beginning in 2008.)

NEXT-GEN COMMUNICATIONS The Pentagon created another industry opportunity with the ongoing development of so-called next-generation communications. Most of the work, though, is currently centered in DARPA's Advanced Technology Office.

The XG Program, as DARPA calls it, focuses on a number of priorities. One is to embed low-power and compact spectrum sensing capability within highly mobile XG-enabled systems. At the same time, DARPA wants to characterize spectrum use by classifying the signals it senses to understand how to coexist with them—not only military systems, but also commercial television, cellular, and other wireless systems. On top of that, DARPA is coming up with a way to react to other spectrum users by selecting and coordinating frequencies, bandwidths, and spreading codes. The goal is to make the XG system operate without interference from other users.

XG is a five-year program. Once operational, the expectation is that troops, vehicles, radar, and radios will seamlessly organize their use of the spectrum.

Buried somewhere in this ambitious program is the development of software-defined radio (SDR). Work on conceptualizing, defining, and implementing an all-digital (software) radio has been under way for 15 years. "Things began to pick up in the early 1990s when the military needed to more effectively manage its data flow, spectrum, and equipment cost," says Terry Sterkel, lead wireless network systems engineer at Mitre Corp (www.mitre.org).

With one exception (the Navy, which has some immediate requirements), all military radio acquisitions have been halted until the Pentagon gets the SDR-compliant radios it wants, says Al Margulies, chief operating officer of the SDR Forum. "The first acquisition cluster may be introduced this year," he says. The DoD's Joint Program Office for Joint Tactical Radio is responsible for procuring new SDR waveforms and converting legacy radios to SDR principles. Boeing (www.boeing.com) is the lead SDR contractor.

UAVs FLY HIGH Few systems have captured the imagination of military strategists as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have. These small and relatively inexpensive aircraft have been around for a long time, but they jumped into prominence in 1991 when the U.S. deployed the Pioneer UAV in Desert Storm. Today, at least 10 different types of UAVs support U.S. armed forces, with opportunities for industry companies in a number of important development areas. Additionally, the DoD is working with industry and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to integrate UAVs into U.S. airspace (see "The Business Of Homeland Security May Top $100 Billion," p. 72).

Several other programs early in development promise to generate new business for industry companies. One is advanced RF sensors, including technologies to produce very large, stowable, lightweight, low-power phased-array radars. Another is MEMS, which promises smaller, lower-power, high-performance applications. The Pentagon expects to spend about $243 million in the current fiscal year on nano materials development. There also are satellite-based laser communications, which could improve the efficiency of satellite communications by a factor of 10 or more.

LOST IN SPACE For NASA, the next big step may be deciding how to proceed with the space shuttle program. Right now, another new program called the Orbital Space Plane is on the drawing board. NASA has awarded $135 million to three aerospace companies to begin designing a fleet of OSPs just big enough for four astronauts to fly to the International Space Station and back. The original plan called for the OSP to be operational in 2012, but the target date was moved up following the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. NASA now hopes to have crew rescue capability for the space station by at least 2010.

Concept studies are under way at Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, with additional work at Orbital Sciences. After 16 months, NASA will select one company to move into full-scale development of the plane.


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