Military avionics market flying steadyStory
March 09, 2021
The last 12 months have not been kind to commercial avionics suppliers, as the pandemic ended up grounding many flights and slowing aircraft purchases, consequently meaning fewer orders for avionics systems like displays and computers. Those commercial avionics suppliers – whether prime contractors or embedded computing suppliers – that are staying afloat are ones with a strong military business to offset the losses from the commercial market, as the military avionics market remains healthy.
Military primes and integrators are benefiting not only by being an essential business but also from the increases in defense spending the last few years. Digital cockpit upgrades continue on pace: Large upgrade programs including the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program Increment 2, led by L3Harris, are going strong. In January 2021 the U.S. Air Force also awarded L3Harris with a $668 million IDIQ contract to help maintain its C-130 aircraft fleet readiness.
On the embedded computing side Abaco Systems has seen multiple wins over the last few months, such as the upgrade to the AC130J gunship side head-up display, detailed in our Special Report on page 14.
Upgrades such as these are also based on open architecture designs and initiatives such as the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) Technical Standard, which enables not only faster development times but also reduced downtime and lower long-term life cycle costs.
The FACE Technical Standard, now in version 3.0, is becoming a staple of military avionics requirements, with buy-in from all levels of the military aviation supply chain – services, prime contractors, and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) suppliers. In this year’s Avionics Issue we dedicate our entire Industry Spotlight to FACE, with in-depth articles starting on page 30 from:
- Chip Downing of RTI: “FACE combats existential threats to advance global competitiveness in airborne systems”
- Will Keegan of Lynx Software Technologies: “Virtualization: A FACE lift for vehicle control”
- Benjamin J. Brosgol of AdaCore: “Making software FACE-conformant and fully portable: Coding guidance for Ada”
“Adopting MOSA [Modular Open Systems Approach] and deploying the FACE Technical Standard and business approach has proven to accelerate the inclusion of the latest airborne innovations,” Downing writes. “In addition, these moves are creating a parallel market for COTS certification evidence that removes program risk and accelerates time-to-airworthiness and deployment.”
Certification, whether for safety or security, continues to be a must for military avionics suppliers and integrators to keep top of mind, even if the military is not required to comply with safety certification such as RTCA DO-178.
“Militaries used to do really advanced testing called ‘black box’ when you can’t see inside,” says Vance Hilderman, chief technical officer at AFuzion in the Mil Tech Trends article titled “DO-178 continues to adapt to emerging digital technologies” on page 22. “Military avionics was really good at testing from the outside, but while important, civil aviation DO-178 provides more intrusive ‘light box’, so you look inside the software. So, older military systems were really well tested from the outside, but you didn’t really know what was inside. Now, militaries are using 178 as almost mandatory throughout the world.”
While military and commercial avionics applications have different requirements, different end users, and different market drivers, companies that play in both areas weather downturns in either market much better. In times of defense budget cuts and sequestration, many military avionics divisions took hits, but were propped up by their commercial aviation counterparts.
Today, it’s the other way around, and may be for a few more years, say industry analysts at Deloitte. “Global aerospace and defense (A&D) industry revenue is expected to begin to recover in 2021 after a difficult year in 2020,” but uneven between defense and commercial markets, according to the Deloitte 2021 aerospace industry outlook (find it on www2.deloitte.com/us/en.html).
“The commercial aerospace sector has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to a dramatic reduction in passenger traffic, in turn affecting aircraft demand,” the Deloitte study says. “As a result, the commercial aerospace sector is expected to recover slowly, as travel demand is not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels before 2024. The defense sector is expected to remain stable in 2021, as most countries have not significantly reduced defense budgets and remain committed to sustaining their military capabilities. However, given the disruption in the complex global supply chain, some defense programs could face minor cost increases and schedule delays in 2021.”
It’s getting to be a tricky balance. Military avionics suppliers I talk to, however, are cautiously optimistic that defense funding will continue to be robust even after the bills for all the pandemic stimulus packages come due.