Trump election, phased array tech, Intel Xeon, VPX, and ARM v-8A impact 2016 military COTS market

Every month the McHale Report will host an online roundtable with experts from the defense electronics industry – from major prime contractors to defense component suppliers. Each roundtable will explore topics important to the military embedded electronics . This month we discuss the market highlights and technology game changers from 2016 in the military electronics market as well as the potential impact of the Donald presidency on the military commercial-off-the-shelf () industry.

This month’s panelists are: Bryan Goldstein, General Manager of the Aerospace and Defense business unit at Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI); Jerry Gipper, Executive Director, VITA; Robert Day, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Lynx Software Technologies; and Chris Ciufo, Chief Technology Officer, General Micro Systems (GMS), Inc.

MCHALE REPORT: In your opinion what technology was a game changer for military electronics in 2016?

GOLDSTEIN: In the aerospace and defense market, 2016 was dominated by activity in and significant moves in advanced integration, which will enable breakthroughs in reduction of system size, weight, and power (SWaP). Although phased array systems have been used in high performance military systems for many years, the increased focus on this area was almost exponential this year with an emphasis on lower cost systems and systems enabled by antenna element level digital beamforming. Much of this activity is mirroring the developments in the 5G communications and automotive radar markets, which are seeing similar activity.

With new lower cost solutions becoming available due to the large volume commercial opportunities, phased array [technology] is expected to have [much greater adoption] for radar, electronic warfare (EW), and communications systems, ranging from high-end military to commercial aerospace to space-borne satellite applications. Higher operating frequencies and smaller platforms, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and advanced munitions are also pushing phased array systems into ever smaller footprints and this is part of the push towards increased integration at the silicon, die-to-die, and module levels.

New advanced performance silicon process nodes and the continued investment in Gallium Nitride are enabling lower system power requirements critical to high-density phased array architectures. The array electronics must be kept at reasonable temperatures to ensure high reliability, as well as that system power supplies fit within small footprints. We expect all of the above trends to continue driving the market over the next several years.

GIPPER: From the VITA perspective, continues to be the game changer. We have seen interest in applications from ground to space. The Army is zeroing in on VPX as a common platform and has been very busy developing the HOST (Hardware Open Systems Technologies) standard. Now the Air Force, Navy, and Army are all working together to define common platforms. There have been many efforts in years past but this one feels different, that something may actually gain long-term traction.

DAY: So, from [the software] side, I think the introduction of the ARM v-8A in real silicon was a very interesting technology shift. This means that we now have 64-bit, , -ready ARM devices shipping in production silicon, giving the [aerospace and defense] market an interesting alternative to Intel, and a place to move from Power Architecture. This, from a software standpoint, means that customers can now run multiple separate operating systems and security domains on an ARM based processor, without compromising performance or power.

CIUFO: Hands down it is Intel’s Xeon D embedded server CPU. Although a derivative of Intel’s not-as-popular Broadwell architecture (Intel’s “5th Generation”; we are now at Skylake, the “6th Generation”), Intel created a surprise winner with Xeon D. With up to 16 cores and 32 logical virtual machines, this CPU is a low-cost server processor that’s perfect for embedded applications where heavy-lifting computation or secure virtual machines are required.

Previously, the embedded industry was constrained to a “mere” quad core Intel CPU (4 cores), but Xeon D increases that by 4x to 16. This means more useful work in about the same power budget as the Core i7 desktop processors. And Xeon D is a system-on-chip (SoC) with an integrated Platform Controller Hub (PCH), so it takes less board space overall as a single-chip solution. Boards can be smaller in small form-factor systems, or more space is available on the PCB for other functions like MIL-STD-1553 or SEMPTE video ports. Xeon D has given the rugged COTS vendors—including GMS—a real leg-up in adding max performance in the smallest amount of space.

MCHALE REPORT: Did the 2016 military electronics market past exceed, meet, or fall short of your expectations?

GOLDSTEIN: 2016 exceeded ADI’s original expectations in the aerospace and defense market. Although some sub-markets were flat, overall the aerospace and defense business at the semiconductor and module level saw growth with munitions replenishment and EW systems being two focus areas. It has been widely documented that the defense focus is shifting from building new large platforms to upgrading electronic suites within existing systems and smaller platforms, such as UAVs and smart munitions. This expectation has played out clearly in 2016 and we expect this to continue into 2017. Overall the market was much more stable and predictable than only a few years ago and growth, at least within the semiconductor market, is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

GIPPER: The market pretty much met my expectations. VME continues to be strong in existing platforms that continue stay deployed. New programs using VPX have been introduced, but the deployment is still slow. IHS Technology just released their 2016 report for the world market for embedded computer boards, modules, and systems. We were expecting the crossover for VME and VPX to occur in 2017, but they are now forecasting it to occur in 2019. The VME number remains stronger than expected and VPX is slower than expected but the number of VPX design wins continues to grow.

DAY: It actually did better last year than we expected, even without the introduction of major new programs. I think that this because of the modernization and upgrading of existing programs and platforms.

CIUFO: Exceed, of course! Despite sequestration and the stagnation of some program budgets, small form factor systems are gaining traction over the old “bus and board” architectures. We even have customers that install our small, conduction-cooled boxes under seats in vehicles—not unlike what you’d do with a power amplifier for a car stereo. Except these boxes control weapons, battlefield networks, and multi-sensor vision systems.

You didn’t ask the “why” question, but for us the catalyst wasn’t all of this Internet-of-Things [IoT] buzz going on in the commercial industry. In fact, the civilian fascination with “everything connected, all the time” has been at the core of the ’s Digital Battlefield for a decade. I’m not implying that the DoD is ahead of the COTS industry, but I’m saying that as the IoT ramps up the buzz, the DoD has been taking advantage of that technology as it’s been rolling out over the past few years—from (“reachback”) processing to at-the-edge (“sensor-to-shooter”) processing.

MCHALE REPORT: 2017 marks the beginning of the Donald Trump presidency and with it Gen. Jim Mattis’ leadership of the Defense Department. How will this leadership change impact the military electronics market -- from primes to COTS suppliers?

GOLDSTEIN: New administrations always provide elements of uncertainty and it is expected that there will be some element of this going into the New Year. However, we expect worldwide market activity and regional challenges to most likely continue driving defense spending at least over the next several years.

GIPPER: Wow, given Trumps history, this could go in any direction! If I were a supplier, I would be preparing for the worst case and hope something better happens. Trump talks about getting tough and cutting costs in the same sentence. My gut says he will keep the spending up on the defense side so the budgets should reflect more spending. With the tension that is building around the globe, the budgets could even end up boosted a bit. Trump’s insistence that the other nations pick up the slack on defense could actually work out nicely for our industry. VPX is used globally and having more nations developing their own platforms could lead to more design wins for VPX.

DAY: I think we could get closer to the [George W.] Bush years, with the introduction of new programs to help us defend against potential nation-state aggressors and the continuing war on terrorism. I think we will see a marked increase in cybersecurity spending, and we have already seen an inkling of this last year, without the dramatic change in administration, which I think will fuel it greatly.

CIUFO: The most interesting thing I find about Mr. Trump is that he is anything, but predictable. But in studying him more closely, I find that it’s only his short-term actions that can be, er, spontaneous. His longer-term goals remain consistent.

On the DoD, he has a long-term respect for the Armed Forces, their leadership, and in the long-standing tradition of keeping America strong. All of these point towards a strong DoD budget. In the immediate term, he’ll be forced to live with President Obama’s budget request so it’s “auto pilot” for a year. But I expect to see the downward budget curves start to tip upwards towards growth on those programs that add value. Mr. Trump has stated that he is opposed to the “bloat” within government and the recent OMB [Office of Management and Budget] report on superfluous government implies that the President will have little patience for the status quo of over-budget programs. I expect he’ll discover the Nunn McCurdy budget overrun rule and hone in on it to either improve program efficiency, or axe inefficiency. The good news for COTS suppliers like us is that we are all about efficiency: doing more in a smaller space for a lower price. Everything Mr. Trump and his administration might focus on can only help America, and will be good news for [us].

One footnote on sequestration and on foreign military sales (FMS): On the former, I expect a Republican-controlled Congress will end sequestration and put an end to the uncertainty, which has plagued budgets—and budget hesitation!—for the past few years. More confidence means programs will move forward. On the latter—FMS—I’m uncertain how our new president will lean. FMS is a key part of the prime contractors’ revenue, and that benefits COTS suppliers. But Mr. Trump has signaled a few possibly conflicting messages on trade, so I don’t know what this means to the military electronics market.

MCHALE REPORT: What will be the disruptive technology or disruptive market trend for 2017 in the military electronics industry and why? Predict the future.

GOLDSTEIN: In 2017, we would expect integration and phased array to continue to be the common themes, and to provide disruptive technology into the marketplace. Traditional ways of thinking about system development will need to be reconsidered as the boundary lines between RF, analog, and digital domains will continue to be blurred. To meet the requirements of smaller form factors while retaining similar (if not increased) levels of performance, the classical approaches will have to be reviewed with an increased emphasis on and software rather than increased-performance electronics. As well as enabling smaller size, software-defined systems enable greater functionality, configurability, and modularity. A couple of examples include: software defined communications systems, which support multiple frequency ranges and modulations schemes, as well as multi-purpose radar systems that can simultaneously support tracking, communications, and electronic surveillance requirements.

Software configurability does not come without a cost, however. Simplified software-controlled hardware architectures will undoubtedly put new performance strains on the RF/uWave and mixed signals functionality, particularly in the areas of improved signal linearity, and spurious rejection requirements. System-level tradeoffs will be critical in balancing the simplification in architecture versus the improved component level performance requirements.

Looking out at the horizon, the insatiable need for increased data bandwidth in both the commercial and military worlds will drive activities in satellite communications and space technology. We are already seeing significant development activities in both Low Earth Orbit and more traditional geostationary satellite space systems, and this is likely to further drive space technology, as well as new system architectures, both for the satellites themselves, as well as the user terminals.

GIPPER: I am not seeing anything disruptive in the timeframe of 2017. Today’s processors have not seen any significant innovation since the rollout of multi-core a few years back. Further down the road, I see new processor architectures as having the potential to be game-changers. It will be a long process, with multiple options explored. The amount of data that is being collected and analyzed simply cannot be processed with the necessary speed by today’s von Neumann architecture processors. Some of the leading contenders to the von Neumann architecture are various takes on neural networking based on threshold logic algorithms that take us away from binary states. Complex data-like images can be processed much faster with neural nets. It may not be long before this type of architecture lands in your Smartphone.

Quantum computing exploits the bizarre and counterintuitive way that matter behaves at an atomic level to perform some amazingly fast processing. First-generation quantum processors are in action now. Quantum computing is especially interesting in the search for more secure computing due to the ability of quantum computers to factor very large numbers that support very challenging encryption algorithms. The more practical implementation of quantum computers will be in searching and mining the massive amounts of data that we are collecting each day.

All this indicates a quickly approaching inflection point that is going to put past thinking about processors on its ear.

DAY: From the software side, we believe that 2017 could well start the era of built-in protection for defense systems. Looking at the number of security cyberthreats, I believe that both tactical DoD systems and back-end IT infrastructure will actually start to build software systems correctly and securely, and not try to bolt-on security as an afterthought as before.

CIUFO: Disruptive? That’s a tech term that Silicon Valley loves to toss around, but few things are truly disruptive. DRAM was disruptive, providing massive density compared to SRAM, as was the Internet, which threw away countless “old” business models. Is there anything on the horizon that is disruptive? That said, two things come to mind. Intel’s OPTANE 3DXPoint memory— a cross between non-volatile flash (1000x faster) and DRAM— is predicted by analysts to be the greatest thing for the semiconductor industry since the DRAM and that was 30 years ago. Intel is set to trickle out this joint Intel/Micron technology in 2017. We, at GMS, are watching it closely.

On the other hand, I mentioned IoT earlier, and one often asks about “at the edge” computing as I mentioned. Sometimes, depending on if you’re listening to Cisco or IBM or Intel or General Electric, this is called “fog” computing. Fog means local processing, at the edge, which is different than cloud computing — where all data and computations are done remotely in . Fog computing is something the DoD has been doing for a while. It’s the sensor-to-shooter concept I mentioned above. And it’s what has been driving all of the performance needs we embedded COTS suppliers are making available to our military customers. If we add more cores, like in a Xeon D, then more processing can be done in the vehicle or on the airplane and local decision-making can be done without sending massive amounts of raw data back…somewhere.

So fog computing is disruptive when you’re talking about the IoT and theorizing adding local processing at a windmill farm or at a valve-and-pump station or on the pole at a 4G/ base station. But I argue that the “disruption” of fog computing in the military is already taking place. We’re already doing it, and you’re writing about it, even if you’re not using that term. Regardless, this kind of capability gives our customers in the DoD and [international Ministries of Defense] more bang for their buck (no pun). And that’s good for business.