Anticipating Future Military Electronic Needs

Aug. 1, 2014
Commercial RF/microwave electronic design trends are starting to infiltrate the defense sphere.

Advances in military electronics have long revolved around the needs of radar systems, whether on the ground, in the air, or at sea. Performance has been a prime requirement for those systems, with reliability a close second, and cost only rarely a concern. Because radar systems operate at such high (pulsed) power levels and frequencies, they have long fueled a healthy market for vacuum electron devices, such as traveling wave tubes (TWTs), to achieve those high signal levels. And military radar and electronic-warfare (EW) systems continue to consume sufficient quantities of vacuum electron devices to maintain a better than billion-dollar-per-year worldwide market for these seemingly archaic devices.

Nonetheless, military electronic systems do change over time. The trends of “smaller, lighter, lower power” that have come to guide commercial RF/microwave electronic designs are sure to become more apparent in military electronic systems over the next several years.

Continuing advances in gallium-nitride (GaN) high-frequency semiconductor technology will certainly affect how military radar systems are designed and implemented. Since GaN power devices can provide practical competition to vacuum tubes in terms of power levels at higher frequencies, these devices will allow the development of smaller and lighter radar systems with less power consumed. As millimeter-wave radar systems are beginning to invade more and more commercial automobiles, portable radar systems will begin to be found in more soldiers’ backpacks, available as mobile radar solutions. Similar radar designs will also support military electronic systems in vehicles for portability and mobility on the battlefield, using active GaN devices instead of vacuum tubes for signal amplification.

Of course, radar is just one military electronic application growing more complex year by year. In addition to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and various other forms of robotic assistants that now help the modern soldier, these unmanned systems are veritable warehouses for efficient, high-frequency electronic systems. These include radar, EW, and wireless communications systems—and in some cases, even satellite-communications (satcom) systems.

Such applications will readily consume semiconductor technologies such as GaN and existing gallium arsenide (GaAs) amplifiers in the years to come. They will also make use of some older semiconductor technologies, such as silicon CMOS, which continue to advance and improve when used in higher-frequency applications.

Military electronics planners are pointing to such applications as wearable sensor clothing, communications devices built into clothing and helmets, along with the growing use of robotic systems (such as smaller UAVs) to perform surveillance and communications in future military applications. In many ways, the future requirements of military electronic systems will mirror the requirements of many commercial RF/microwave systems, including a growing need for controlling costs. The availability of smaller, lighter, lower-power RF/microwave electronic solutions at frequencies through the millimeter-wave region will enable the development of military electronic systems and solutions serving the individual soldier, much like these technologies now serve civilians with their cellular telephones. 

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About the Author

Jack Browne | Technical Contributor

Jack Browne, Technical Contributor, has worked in technical publishing for over 30 years. He managed the content and production of three technical journals while at the American Institute of Physics, including Medical Physics and the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology. He has been a Publisher and Editor for Penton Media, started the firm’s Wireless Symposium & Exhibition trade show in 1993, and currently serves as Technical Contributor for that company's Microwaves & RF magazine. Browne, who holds a BS in Mathematics from City College of New York and BA degrees in English and Philosophy from Fordham University, is a member of the IEEE.

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