Military RF market expanding thanks to GaN, commercial manufacturing practices

The U.S. military relies more and more on sophisticated and (EW) systems to maintain strategic advantage in peace and in wartime. This also means more demand for and microwave , a demand that is growing faster than the military market itself, says Doug Carlson, Vice President of Strategy for . In the following Q & A he discusses this market trend as well as the impact of () technology on , how commercial manufacturing practices are lowering the life cycle costs of military semiconductors, and how the defense industry needs to do a better job of recruiting young engineering talent.

MCHALE REPORT: Please provide a brief description of your responsibility within MACOM and your group’s role within the company.

CARLSON: I’m the Vice President of Strategy and I focus on the RF and microwave side of MACOM where I work with product lines and business units to help develop strategy and roadmaps and technology -- looking out the next three to five years. I also spend a large amount of time on large account development for the aerospace and defense markets.

MCHALE REPORT: For military radar programs, what platforms do you see getting the most funding? Maritime, airborne, ground, space? What domains do most of MACOM’s products land in?

CARLSON: I think if you look out over the next decade the split between these domains should stay constant. We think the air domain is probably about 40 percent of the overall market and is driven by the numbers of planes that can be built vs. the number ships as well as the increase in radar antenna arrays being placed on aircraft. Second is land at 30 percent, then sea at 20 percent, and space at 10 percent. It should stay constant and flat in terms of ratios.

MACOM’s RF portfolios that range from discrete diodes to multifunctional assemblies – from components dating back to the 1960s to most modern stuff – see heavy participation in air, land, and today a lesser extent in sea platforms. We have little penetration into space-based systems, but are in some components. Very shortly you will see MACOM make a more aggressive push into high-reliability space products.

MCHALE REPORT: Do you see continued growth for RF technology in military applications with the recent increases in the ’s budget or will this market remain flat like others?

CARLSON: I actually think the overall aerospace and defense market will be flat to growing at a slight percentage, but RF content in this market will continue to expand faster than the market itself. We view active antenna technology as ubiquitous across multiple applications from communications to radar to electronic warfare. When military systems have active antennas the RF content goes up dramatically. The overall market will be flat, but as systems move to active antennas RF content will grow. Sensors are key to everything. Just because the military may not physically be there doesn’t mean they are not watching via blimps, drones, space platforms, etc.

MCHALE REPORT: What type of military radar systems are your components most often being designed into?

CARLSON: The vast majority of our products are shipping into – primarily divided between X and S band systems. We are everywhere, from upfront to the transceiver sections. We also have a power transistor business, which supports transmitters for mechanical scan radars, but that is a legacy business that is slowly declining as the industry moves toward AESA technology.

MCHALE REPORT: MACOM, like others, has adapted GaN technology. How has GaN changed the military radar world?

CARLSON: GaN primarily does a couple of things. It allows you to achieve power in AESA systems that you couldn’t get near before. The device has higher efficiency facilitating higher power density in watts per square millimeter allowing the array to going much higher with greater power density. And more importantly it enables support for broadband performance. Antennas are becoming more agile and they need to support broadband performance. Ultimately military users want their systems to be adaptive and multifunctional. For instance, having one antenna system that can switch between communication links, EW capability, and radar functions, then back to the EW tasks. It essentially hops all over the system.

MCHALE REPORT: What are MACOM’s SPAR Tiles and how do they enhance capability in military radar systems?

CARLSON: Many years back at MACOM we started using commercial manufacturing practices to realize high performance defense systems. If we could leverage the broader electronics industry, we could drive down costs, and make technology more ubiquitous for the soldier. SPAR Tiles are for high performance radar systems and manufactured completely via commercial surface mount technology. We can walk right into a commercial fab and run our tiles on their lines. It allows us to use their volume and learning cycle and apply it to the military world. See Figure.

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Figure 1
(Click graphic to zoom)

The worldwide semiconductor market is valued at about $400 billion. The total defense market for semiconductors is worth about $4 billion. The defense folks better start figuring out how to exploit commercial manufacturing the way we do with SPAR Tiles. This product conforms to commercial rules for any big manufacturing house, effectively lowering total overall weight because of the construction methodology.

But the big advantage is in reducing the expense of manufacturing. Lincoln Labs estimates that SPAR Tiles lower cost of the front end by a factor of five with an overall system cost reduction of 40 percent. This is a huge deal in today’s cost and budget-constrained environment. The DoD is moving to firm fixed price procurement with a quick turnaround. To a large extent SPAR Tiles already do this as the packaging time is two weeks, much shorter than ceramic packaging times, and the products leverage high volume lines, thus removing the expense of building a dedicated factory.

MCHALE REPORT: It seems every piece of electronic equipment today is getting smaller -- GPS systems, radios, etc. How have reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements affected your radar product designs? What are the tradeoffs with smaller tech?

CARLSON: Our SPAR Tiles reduce weight and cost through their manufacturing, but size on the front end is determined by the wavelength of the frequency I’m transmitting, so I can’t do anything about the XY physical size. The power part is one of the areas where GaN technology delivers, as it is grossly more efficient – enabling more power with less heat. In a way it enables a type of “green” radar.

MCHALE REPORT: Are you also seeing an increased demand for commercial-off-the-shelf () technology and commonality from your defense customers? How do you manage ?

CARLSON: At the RF component level most semiconductors are still customized at the end of the day, as the performance we are trying to achieve is much more complicated. I do see the industry trying to leverage commercial fabs and commercial manufacturing to try to better take advantage of their cost efficiencies, but COTS components have limited penetration at the front end. It also comes down to trust in the pedigree of the part. Military users and anyone for that matter needs to be assured there is no malware built into it. This limits lot of components coming in, especially from the Far East, where most counterfeit components originate.

Obsolescence is a very difficult tradeoff for many who want to play in the defense market. Support must last for decades. For example in the late 1970s a big radar antenna – the PAVE Phased Array Warning System (PAVE PAWS) – was developed then deployed on the Cape Cod Canal in 1980. We still provide silicon bipolar transistors into U.S. supply depots for spares repairs on that radar. If you are in the defense business you must commit to critical-based tech support for decades. If not, you will not get in the door. We still support these product lines ourselves and do the same thing on the diode side for legacy radio systems and the B-52.

MCHALE REPORT: What are the next challenges/threats your military customers are looking to counter with radar technology and what innovation in radar systems will be necessary to counter those threats?

CARLSON: Sophisticated threats are helping drive the push to merge radar, EW, and communications systems into one footprint. The challenge for military sensor system designers is how to efficiently transmit information back to command centers and how to protect the system and protect the warfighters. This covers everything from fire control, to target acquisition, to high-resolution imaging of ground targets.

A long time ago the radar antenna was the big discriminator for our customers and was used to build great radar systems. Today I’m seeing a transition where our customers seek value not from the antenna, but from how they use the antenna. They want more adaptability and the ability to drop a single system into the battlefield that provides the functionality of six independent systems. This isn’t your daddy’s radar anymore, as high levels of sophistication are required for interpreting waveforms and interpreting signals on the battlefield today.

MCHALE REPORT: When one attends a trade show such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) or others like it, one can’t help but notice there is a lot less gray hair at these events than at military technology events such as the large Army and Navy events. Does the military electronics industry have a recruitment challenge on its hands?

CARLSON: There have been a number of articles recently about how defense companies are having difficulty attracting young talent. Google and companies like it appear much more attractive and in a word “cooler” places to work than some defense companies. It is tough and pervasive across the whole RF market as the number of engineers at top schools who focus on hardware related technology is fairly limited – and the numbers working on are even more limited. Recruitment has shrunk significantly over time. But on the positive side, the increasing digital content in the RF community is enabling us to attract that young digital talent. There is still an analog piece they need to learn, which can be accomplished through on the job training. In fact, we have internships with targeted universities and graduate schools so that when they join us they can hit the ground running.

MCHALE REPORT: RF and microwave technology fuel much of the radar technology development in the military market, but the automotive radar market promises even larger growth. How is innovation in automotive radar driving military RF and microwave designs?”

CARLSON: Over MACOM’s history we’ve participated in the automotive radar market, with radars for long-range and short-range sensing. In general the automotive world is influencing military radar designs today. For example, when the military initiated efforts to enhance the vision for rotary aircraft pilots in degraded environments such as sand storms, they found they needed high millimeter wave radar systems to solve this problem. Then they saw in the broader market that somebody already solved this problem in automotive radar and they didn’t have to invent it.

MCHALE REPORT: Looking forward, what disruptive technology/innovation will be a game changer in the military radar world? Predict the future.

CARLSON: What will have the most profound influence in the active antenna market is . If you start looking at active areas where people employ next-gen telecom networks they are using phased array antennas at many different frequencies. Given the economies of scale with the larger commercial market, innovation in phased array technology for the military will be available a much lower cost than if the military funded this development on its own.

In the past with phased arrays the military only essentially played with technology it owned. Now with this technology being adapted by commercial applications, learning cycles are shortened, costs come down more rapidly, and things change more quickly. It starts with active antenna solutions transitioning beyond the military to civil communications, then to the consumer market. For example, Amazon is looking at using drones for deliveries. Well, those drones will need a little radar sensor on them so they don’t crash into your mailbox. Due to the kinds of cost points achieved through large-volume commercial production all manner of markets will open up for sensor technology.

Dr. Douglas J. Carlson has served as MACOM’s Vice President of Strategy since August 2014. Prior to that he had held the position of Director of Aerospace and Defense Strategy. Before joining MACOM’s Advanced Semiconductor Division in 1990, he served on the research staffs of MIT and Bell Laboratory, Murray Hill, NJ. Dr. Carlson received his ScB in electronic material from Brown University in 1983 and his ScD in Electronic Materials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1989.