The long life span expected in current and future weapon systems,
coupled with the fast-paced advances in commercial electronic technologies
and the gradual erosion of the manufacturing base for military electronics
have created the so-called "obsolescence" program that
today plagues many weapon systems.
During the past decade, many acquisition reform initiatives at
the Defense Department were motivated by the desire to tap the explosive
growth in electronics capabilities of the commercial and consumer
industry. In the 1980s, the Defense Department attempted to develop
a new generation of unique, dedicated computers, only to find, after
many years and more than a billion dollars devoted to the project,
that the computers were obsolete and incompatible with the latest
industry standards. This experience helped fuel the move to the
use of commercial off-the-shelf technology in new systems and upgrades
of aging systems.
It has become clear that the Defense Department is facing a significant
obsolescence problem with respect to electronic components, exacerbated
both by industry trends and by a reluctance to acknowledge its depth
The evolution of the obsolescence problem is perhaps best understood
by first reviewing the changing role of military electronics in
the semiconductor industry during the past 25 years. During the
1970s, military requirements drove nearly all cutting-edge electronics
research and development, and the military purchased about 35 percent
of the industry’s output of semiconductor components.
By 1984, the military was purchasing only 7 percent of the total
domestic semiconductor output. But in spite of the reduced market
share, military business was still desirable. The military still
bought the most advanced and profitable chips and components, so
most vendors continued to supply the military.
It was at this time, however, that the momentum began building
to redesign military acquisition processes, in part to capitalize
more effectively on the rapid developments in commercial electronics.
This well-intentioned movement ultimately failed to anticipate the
fallout from the electronics industry’s explosive growth,
which would significantly change the ground rules for manufacturers.
By the late 1990s, military purchasers confronted a commercial
electronics base that was expanding exponentially. Yet there was
a lag in the understanding of how commercial growth would affect
the manufacture of electronics at the component level.
The military’s share of component purchases is now under
1 percent. As a result, the military electronics market has become
increasingly unattractive. New semiconductor facilities cost billions
of dollars to construct, and the only way to recoup these investments
is by serving the mass market. To serve the military’s needs
involves low production volumes coupled with stringent manufacturing
requirements. That is a sure recipe for un-profitability.
As the infrastructure available to support military electronics
needs has eroded, the military is counting on legacy systems designed
in the 1970s and 1980s to serve well into the new century. The U.S.
Army’s current roster of tanks and fighting vehicles is expected
to be active until 2030, while the U.S. Air Force expects to use
its current bomber fleet until 2040.
The severe obsolescence problems experienced by these aging systems
can’t be fixed by simple component replacement. Many components
no longer are available. Those that remain available aren’t
competitive in either cost or performance with products routinely
used in the commercial arena.
The use of components built to military specifications (Mil Spec)
originally was driven by the need to deliver reliable weapon systems.
Their life cycle, typically 10-20 years, corresponded with the anticipated
life cycle of the systems in which they were installed. Their enhanced
durability and long life-cycle offset their higher initial cost,
making it prudent for designers to specify Mil Spec components.
It was expected that, by leveraging the rapid improvements and
high volume seen in the commercial electronics market, lower costs
would follow. However, in part because of the erosion of the military
electronic manufacturing infrastructure, component costs often have
Lower-than-expected savings from moving to commercial components
is only one problem. A new set of increased costs, only now being
fully understood, have actually driven the total life-cycle cost
of commercial components higher than the Mil Spec components they
replace. These additional costs include:
These realities dictate that obsolescence be regarded as inevitable,
and that its consequences must be mitigated.
One example of proactive obsolescence management is the work by
the U.S. Air Force B-2 bomber program office.
The B-2 experience has demonstrated that there are no easy or comprehensive
fixes to the obsolescence problem. The effort is labor intensive,
must be based on a sound plan and can’t be managed by simply
dumping work and responsibility onto the prime contractor.
The B-2 process uses predictive tools such as the transitional
analysis of component technology, known commercially as TACTech,
to help define the obsolescence of each subsystem or line replaceable
unit (LRU). The resulting analysis is further refined, by using
the Pentagon’s diminishing manufacturing sources management
system (DMSMS) database to add information about component availability.
This database is supported by the Defense Department’s microelectronics
activity, program offices and prime contractors. It includes information
about last-time buys and the availability of specific components
that may not be addressed by TACTech.
The B-2 team then develops options based on the TACTech/DMSMS analyses,
assigns costs to each and makes recommendations.
Obsolescence management is primarily a tool for reducing or avoiding
downstream costs, rather than generating immediate savings. However,
the challenge can be addressed with a proactive, team-oriented approach,
based on analyses using tools already available.
Donna Dillahunty, who works at the B-2 logistics management office,
noted that, initially, "we never knew a part was obsolete until
spares orders were returned from the vendor as no-bids. The real
solution is to be proactive."
To determine where the potential problems were, she explained,
"we first split the B-2 into its basic subsystems, and then
divided each subsystem into its respective LRUs [line replaceable
units]. We gathered engineering and cataloging information for every
single component on every LRU, and entered it into our database,
which is networked into a repository of obsolete parts information
from almost every IC vendor in the world, along with lists of alternate
parts that have been used by other weapon systems.
"Even though a part is obsolete, we may have enough on the
shelf for the life of the weapon system, so it’s not a problem
for us. But more often than not, we don’t have that luxury,"
The experience of the B-2 program office provides proof that it
is possible to manage obsolescence challenges proactively. Nonetheless,
to avoid dealing with these problems in a scattershot, isolated
fashion, it is essential to build a military acquisition culture
that routinely considers obsolescence issues as part of the decision-making
process for each program.
Maj. Gen. John Caldwell, commander of the U.S. Army Tank-automotive
Armament Command (TACOM), said that obsolescence is a "growing
problem all of the Defense Department is facing. You can’t
avoid it or completely eliminate it. But you can work to mitigate
the pain that it causes our managers who have to support old systems."
Success will come, he said, "when we make a significant team
effort from both the government and industry to put in place the
resources and processes to deal with this complex issue."