Military Embedded Systems

Who wants to live forever?


April 20, 2009

Don Dingee

Contributing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Who wants to live forever?

The true definition of "obsolescence" is outliving everything that once mattered and redefining relevance in an evolved world.

When you look at the Highlander series and strip away all the accents, swords, Queen music, long hair, and various hormonal influences, you are left with a basic morality play. If you lived forever, you would outlive everyone and everything you cared about. In fact, it would happen over and over again as people and things came and went, and you would eventually feel nothing but utter despair from the huge accumulated loss. But you have to continue fighting because there are still issues of right and wrong, and people worth protecting. This is the ultimate view of obsolescence: outliving all the people and things that mattered in the beginning – and redefining relevance in a changed world.

And I'm sure that if a B-52 or aircraft carrier could feel, it might experience exactly those emotions, since these platforms are the closest things we have to immortal, at least in defense terms. Their electronic systems have been upgraded, refurbished, and retrofitted in every conceivable way so that they don’t even remotely resemble what they were in the beginning. They’ve evolved but not really changed what they are supposed to do. But the world has changed considerably around them.



At ESC Silicon Valley, I ran into a friend and asked what he is working on. He is designing systems to replace incandescent lights on the KC-135 (Figure 1) with LED lights. Each aircraft has about 50 bulbs for various roles such as drogue lighting and landing lights, and two or three bulbs fail every flight. In a squadron such as the one based at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, that is two dozen bulbs that need to be replaced every time they go out for a ride. This certainly reduces maintenance since LEDs don’t fail nearly as often under vibration, but it doesn’t really create change. (But it has been good for my friend’s company.) I’m left wondering how many more programs like this there are, where we are just stretching the operational life of something.




Figure 1: A KC-135 from Arizona's 161st Air Refueling Wing tops off an F-16 from the U.S. Air Force's 401st Tactical Fighter Wing as it flies to the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. Photo courtesy of the National Guard Bureau




Change is hard, but it is necessary because nothing man creates can last forever. Why is changing with the times such a problem then? The answer, of course, has little to do with technology itself, and a lot more to do with economics and politics. There are two aspects of this to consider.



The first is that the United States has relied heavily on superior technology and training, as opposed to vast numbers with lower costs, since the inception of the P-51 during World War II. This philosophy has permeated almost all defense programs until very recently: Think of the M1A2 battle tank, the F-22 air superiority fighter, and the Ticonderoga-class Aegis guided missile cruiser as a few examples. Superior technology costs a lot, and a platform must be upgradable to extend its life and spread the investment over many years.



The second aspect is more troubling. As consumer electronics have proliferated, the share of semiconductors destined for defense programs has dropped to just over 1 percent of the total volume of semiconductors produced worldwide. This leaves few economic incentives for most companies to continue production of parts for a particular defense program. Instead, techniques such as lifetime buys are used to offset the need for parts over many years.



We are seeing fewer and fewer major program starts, which is creating the need for longer and longer program lives. This in turn creates ample opportunity to upgrade electronics systems capability on a planned basis. But more of those upgrades are necessitated by obsolescence of critical electronics components and subsystems that must be replaced with increasing frequency as supplies dry up.



These long-lived, high-budget platforms might outlive not only each of us, but the threats they were designed to handle. Does the world of 2040 really call for a B-52 or a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier? Those platforms have played a valuable role, but there are legitimate questions going forward. There will always be unique needs, but even those can be handled. Look at the F-117 Nighthawk, which came and went in a relatively short 15-year lifespan, replaced by better technology with lower maintenance costs by integrating capability into the F-22 program. Effective unmanned platforms delivered at lower costs are also changing the overall equation.



We might finally be seeing a shift from platforms that have to live forever to platforms that fill a role and retire gracefully. It's a needed change because keeping the electronics inside alive will get nothing but more and more difficult if the life cycle does not get shorter somehow.



The world has changed. There are still issues of right and wrong, and people worth protecting. It is time to rethink the prevailing view of obsolescence and the thinking that things from components to subsystems to systems to platforms have to live forever simply because we spent, or are about to spend, a lot of money on them.



For more information, contact Don at [email protected].