By Jenny Bieksha, Bishop & Associates
Worldwide military spending is clearly on the downtrend, including a shift in the defense spending patterns. A 5% to 10% drop in global defense spending has been forecast by industry analysts for the upcoming 12- to 18-month period. Dealing with an ever-shrinking budget, the DoD and defense industry are moving toward the 80% solution: procuring enough technology to keep current platforms running and meet immediate needs, as opposed to long-term research and development projects.
Rather than fund new vehicle platforms, military organizations are electing to modernize existing ground combat fleets via upgrades, adding capability, capacity, and functionality to existing platforms. Military users are looking for proven solutions with high Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), which promise low risk, low costs, and a fast turnaround.
This trend is leading platform manufacturers to the developed technologies found in pre-packaged and pre-qualified subsystems. Suppliers are being challenged to deliver the highest performance in the smallest form factor, while meeting the mutually exclusive requirements of size, weight, and power (SWaP), and cost requirements. As such, suppliers of COTS products are capturing a larger share of the shrinking market, as many of their existing products fulfill these requirements and are prevalent in defense applications.
Over the last decade, there has been a need to rapidly equip military vehicles with increasingly optimized electronic information and command systems. These have often been referred to as “bolt-on” systems, which have added weight, reduced flexibility, and created power and cooling issues in the vehicles. These systems are now being configured into networks, sharing data within the same platform and between neighboring platforms, as well as with combatants on the ground. This new generation of vehicle electronics architecture, called vetronics, is an important development in platform design.
Vetronics include navigation, observation, communications, energy, motorization, and weapons systems of military vehicles, as well as the networking of those systems. On the technical level, vetronics contribute to optimizing platform electronics and computing resources, facilitating the integration into the vehicles, and improving the logistics and supportability in operating conditions. On the operational level, this technological evolution increases the versatile capacity of the platforms in combat.
Initiatives Driving Vetronics
Over and beyond the reduction of worldwide defense budgets, additional initiatives are driving electronics technology for military ground combat vehicles, including the movement to an open architecture, increasing bandwidth, and SWaP reduction. Commonality and standardization are behind the US Army’s Vehicular Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability (VICTORY) initiative, a network that connects all the electronics within a vehicle.
There are several approaches to vetronics. One of these is a modernization program taking into account the existing fleet, its foreseeable evolution, as well as the acquisitions being deployed. Another approach, called modular vetronics, emphasizes standard component design, which provides a noticeable decrease in the cost of making changes. Modular vetronics is based on a layered architecture that enables scale and configuration changes, leading to a modular structure of applications and equipment. Open architectures promote cross-fleet commonality, leading to savings generated by an anticipated reduction of costs in:
- Initial development, production, and upgrades due to the use of common subsystems;
- Modularity to assist in meeting requirements for adaptability, upgradeability, interoperability, affordability, and portability;
- Reduced spares holdings due to common subsystems and resultant reductions in necessary battlefield logistics;
- Common training for both vehicle and maintenance crews
Vetronics Applications Require High-Performance Connectivity Solutions
Vetronics increase the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of ground forces, providing enhanced situational awareness and improved survivability. Sensors gather mission-critical information to enhance ISR, warfighter safety, and mission effectiveness, as well as contribute to a network-centric battlefield. Integrators of vetronics systems for military vehicles are moving toward COTS smart displays for new platforms and vehicle retrofits.
Military ground vehicles offer limited space and deliver a finite amount of energy to power a multitude of vetronics. Given the increasing quantity and complexity of subsystems that will be fit to current and future land platforms, the installed vetronics architecture must support conservation of platform power. Much of the existing electronics within current systems must be upgraded to optimize the use of SWaP, while improving performance and reducing life cycle cost.
Many military programs are requiring higher-performance processing and memory architectures, while seeking greater support for high-bandwidth, modular I/O expansion, and scalable integration of subsystem functionality. As a result, rugged COTS pre-integrated computing subsystems are starting to replace the traditional custom MIL-SPEC systems. Modularity is often a key packaging strategy in embedded computers. Embedded computers must be adaptable and offer connectivity options to serve a wide variety of applications and environments.
The form factor of embedded computers can range from tiny computer-on-modules attached to a carrier board, up to an enclosed box assembly complete with power supply and I/O. A constantly evolving series of industry specifications define the form factors that enable connectivity among modules. Multifunction I/O boards are reaching across a number of small form factors, including COM Express, XMC, AMC, PC/104, Qseven, and others.
Interconnect opportunities may be found in numerous vetronics applications, including:
- Modular Systems Network Switch Units
- Target Tracking
- Embedded Training
- Integrated Display Processing
- Situational Awareness
- Remote Interface Units
- Hull/Turret Computers
- Fire Control Computers
- Launcher Control Units
In addition to the MIL connectors (i.e. MIL-DTL-26842, -5015, -38999) designed into many Army vehicles today, new vetronics applications are creating new connector opportunities.
High-performance, rugged, end-to-end solutions are an imperative. Inside-the-box, high-performance, high-density interconnects are required to keep up with escalating processor power and communications data rates. High-speed data streams, information storage, and video are driving the demand for higher-performance box-to-box copper and fiber-optic cable assemblies.
US Army Modernization Programs in Progress
The US Army currently has upgrade programs in initial stages to modernize Bradley Fighting Vehicles, convert M1A1 and M1A2 SEPV1 Abram tanks to the M1A2 SEP V2 configuration, and upgrade C4ISR equipment and systems on MRAP vehicles. In addition to these upgrade programs, the US Army is ramping up limited production on a new fleet of networked vehicles. Major integration and installation efforts are now underway as the Army prepares to deliver the first MRAPs equipped with components of Capability Set 13 (CS-13).
The MRAP vehicle designs standardize the configuration of different combinations of network equipment on various platforms in preparation for configuring the entire fleet. The vehicles are outfitted with the fully integrated package of radios, satellite systems, software applications, smart phone-like devices and other network components that provide integrated connectivity.
CS-13 is essentially an entire mobile network being fielded at one time, rather than as individual pieces over a number of years. Approximately every two years, another capability package will be fielded, keeping the network as modernized as the service can manage. CS-13 also is being coordinated with other modernization programs, including the JLTV and the GCV, the new armored vehicle for heavy and Stryker brigade combat teams. Both will serve as platforms for the vehicle-mounted CS-13 components.
Outlook for Vetronics
The influx of data-intensive applications and the technology needed for the next generation of high-performance components point toward a strong future for vetronics. The vetronics market is projected to be reasonably stable as the military focuses on maintaining current programs, rather than rolling out new major platforms. Industry analysts at Frost & Sullivan forecast the value of the vetronics market in 2013 to be slightly more than $900 million, slowly growing to more than $928 million in 2017. Today’s military electronics manufacturers are tasked with designing vehicle electronic systems that not only have to endure the world’s harshest environments, but must also endure military requirements for years to come.