EMERGING TECHNOLOGY HORIZONS DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

A Roadmap to Modernized Defense Microelectronics

11/24/2023
By Michael Fritze and Jacob Winn

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Although microelectronic components underpin nearly all military systems, the Defense Department often struggles to upgrade them when modernizing its defense systems.

Even though many key capabilities continue to use legacy microelectronics today, the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute’s new report found an urgent need for the department to systematically overhaul the way it modernizes its microelectronics. Doing so will support efforts to field defense systems most capable of meeting the anticipated threats and operational requirements of the future.

ETI wrote the “Improving DoD’s Ability to use Modern Microelectronics” report after hearing the concerns voiced by experts during an ETI-led microelectronics modernization workshop. To produce the report, ETI conducted interviews with subject matter experts ranging from those with a lifetime of service at the department, to commercial microelectronics industry veterans, to defense industrial base engineers and businesses executives. The report provides a number of findings and recommendations to address microelectronics modernization challenges.

The report found that the Defense Department lacks an organization with sufficient authority, resources and expertise to assist program offices with acquiring, sustaining and modernizing their microelectronics. While a variety of agencies provide this kind of support, no single entity provides the much-needed push across the department and services to systematically pool technical and acquisition expertise or assess the microelectronics needs of the military as a whole.

To remedy this, the report recommends the Pentagon should designate, and request additional funding for, a centralized microelectronics support activity. That activity could be established by empowering an existing organization or by merging several.

Our research and interviews also revealed a variety of technical challenges facing defense microelectronics modernization, such as the Defense Department and the industrial base often lack specific information on the cost, schedule, security and performance benefits of microelectronics modernization in defense systems.

In today’s systems, this is partially caused by a lack of government access to intellectual property and fully reworkable technical data packages and by a lack of prime contractor visibility into the microelectronics that are often delivered by subcontractors. Even the newest systems suffer from this problem: lifecycle costs, schedule and performance needs are often not fully understood or considered during development and procurement, leaving problems later for sustainment.

ETI recommends the department and the services mitigate these issues by requesting funds for program offices to conduct detailed technical studies to evaluate system microelectronics to prepare for changes in threat, new emerging technologies and the state of commercial microelectronics.

Interviewees also discussed a variety of cutting-edge development, qualification and security practices that require further study to determine their value for modernizing microelectronics. These include technical practices such as virtual system modeling, digital twinning and qualification-by-similarity. Additional studies to expand visibility into microelectronics supply chains, and DoD-specific analyses of zero-trust architectures, are also needed.

Beyond studies, the report recommends the Pentagon expeditiously develop its congressionally mandated security standards for microelectronics.

In addition to technical considerations, the budgeting and acquisition systems could be drastically improved to enable the department to better modernize its microelectronics.

Subsystems are rarely designed, developed or procured with continuous “upgradability” in mind. At times, program offices and contractors have performed costly “end-of-life” purchases of subsystems or microelectronic components to continue supporting legacy systems rather than move to a newer component in active production.

The report recommends the department establish microelectronics upgradability as a “key system attribute” to create incentives for developing technical requirements that move programs toward system designs and architectures that support continuous upgrades of embedded microelectronics. It should also ensure that acquisition strategies and instructions include technology refresh events; these are envisioned as regular touch points for active market research and new technical analysis to provide an opportunity for adopting available technologies into systems.

The new microelectronics support activity should be empowered to monitor programs’ technology refresh events to gather best practices and prevent duplication of efforts across the Defense Department and the services.

Finally, ETI found that the programming and appropriations processes are too rigid to allow for procurement of mission-driven microelectronics capabilities that perform close to the state-of-the-practice. For example, it is often unclear whether upgrading microelectronics qualifies as a sustainment, procurement or development activity.

We recommend budgeting and appropriations practices be changed to allow operations and maintenance funds to be consistently used for microelectronics upgrades by program offices, agencies and services.

At such a major inflection point in the global microelectronics sector, it is critical the Defense Department adapt its practices to leverage the rapid pace of innovation in a timely manner and at affordable costs. ETI encourages you to read the full report, located by using the provided QR code or by visiting the Publications section of our website, www.EmergingTechnologiesInstitute.org. ND

Michael Fritze is a technology consultant, senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and senior advisor at Trusted Silicon Solutions. Jacob Winn is an associate research fellow at NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Electronics

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