The RF Revolution: “COTS” Components Key to JADC2 & MOSA

 In Proving Ground

The continual miniaturization of analog and digital technologies has brought forth a watershed moment in defense electronics: multi-function RF and processing devices in a compact line-replaceable unit (LRU) form factor.

These devices increasingly adhere to open-architecture standards – bringing the dream of “plug and play,” modular electronic subsystems much closer to reality.

The tremendous size, weight and power (SWAP) benefits these devices offer will permit new platform applications, particularly in space-constrained environments.

As the electronic warfare community applies software-defined radio technology in new and novel ways, defense customers and industry alike should consider the benefit to:

  1. Networking for Joint, All-Domain Command & Control: As planners and commanders work toward achieving the vision of Joint All Domain Command & Control (JADC2), they must recognize the role these multi-function subsystems can play in software-defined networking, particularly the benefits beyond electronic warfare to include positive communications.
  2. Modular, Open-Systems Architectures: As DoD seeks to drive open-systems requirements across programs and to the level of line-replaceable units, industry integrators will benefit from proactively partnering with providers of MOSA-compliant RF modules.

Historical Challenges & Emerging Context

Single Purpose Systems Drove Expensive Engineering Change Proposals

For decades, defense electronic systems and subsystems have been designed and built in a custom way, to align with the specific platforms and military use cases determined at the outset of the program.

The legacy model of hardware engineering relied heavily on discrete circuits at the board level, particularly prior to the widespread adoption of programmable integrated circuits.

Moreover, the uniqueness of military waveforms and the stringency of NSA crypto requirements drove system architects away from open, “plug and play” commercial standards.

This confluence of factors resulted in electronics subsystems that were often “single-threaded” in capability and difficult to modify.

Indeed, for many years, a customer’s ability to change the functionality of one of these systems to meet emerging threats required a great deal of time and effort by the prime contractor.

Primes were motivated to maintain this status quo, as high-margin engineering change proposals (ECPs) to insert those changes drove significant value for shareholders.

Adversary Advances in the RF Spectrum

As defense customers began questioning the need for continued ECP-driven upgrades, another phenomenon coincided to further reshape the market environment.

Emerging threats from “near-peer” nation-states, exhibited through various “brushfire” wars in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, started to receive increased attention within the Pentagon.

It became clear in the mid-2010s that the US DoD’s post-9/11 focus on jamming less sophisticated IED triggers (e.g., cell phones, garage door openers, etc.) had hollowed out industry’s expertise and focus on high-end EW capabilities and threats in the RF spectrum.

It was not just that our potential adversaries had advanced their capabilities in the meantime – but that they had developed a much more adaptable and modular approach, with layers of high- and low-sophistication technology, to communications and electronic warfare – and the US had no comprehensive answers.

Historical Software-Defined Radio Focus on Positive Communications

Industry’s emerging answer to this state of affairs has been to leverage the best commercial technology to drive parallel layered and modular capabilities into the newest generation of defense electronics.

One of the most important aspects of this campaign is the prominence of software-defined radio (SDR) technology, which allows the user to accomplish a wide swath of functions.

Of course, the prominence of SDR communications in the defense market today might suggest this trend is old, rather than new. SDRs, after all, have already made much of the old discrete-reliant, “single-threaded” regime obsolete within the positive communications domain.

The well-established HMS Manpack, ARC-210 Gen 6, and MIDS-JTRS programs – among many others – offer software-defined capabilities and replace legacy “brick” systems capable of only certain predefined tasks. These SDRs can incorporate waveforms not contemplated upon initial design, including Trellisware’s commercially-derived TSM-X.

However, the electronic warfare community has not been as quick to adjust to software definition as those in traditional “positive” communications.

To a certain extent, security classification and minimal commercial product leverage have hampered MOSA in this segment of the market. Even as recently as the past few years, software definition has been a lagging aspect of EW systems and subsystems.

The Emerging RF Revolution in Electronic Warfare

But now that is starting to change. A new class of vendors with a legacy of driving commercial-standard processing into high-end military systems for years are re-shaping the electronic warfare industry with software-defined RF hardware.

Firms like Mercury Systems, Herrick Technology Laboratories, and Pacific Defense are revolutionizing the way electronic warfare and communications capabilities are instantiated in hardware by combining multiple RF functions into a standardized chassis compatible with the latest military open-architecture standards.

Leveraging commercial SDR know-how, as well as the Moore’s Law benefits that come from sourcing the best edge-computing components from commercial vendors like Xilinx, Intel, and NVIDIA, these companies are building modular boxes that can accomplish a wide array of missions with a fraction of the SWAP penalty.

Leveraging state of the art connector and flexible printed circuit board (PCB) supply chains, these vendors offer RF subsystems of increasing capability in the same, or smaller, form-factor.

This emerging hardware is now being combined with specialized algorithms and an acceleration in software development, both by industry and by Defense and Intelligence agencies.

While the details of EW algorithms are typically classified, broadly speaking there is a strong movement toward detection, classification, and reactive transmission in real time, in theater.

Players like DeepSig are advancing the state of the art with machine learning capabilities that plug into RF stacks. These algorithms are made increasingly speedy and functional through industry advancements in processing, like BlackLynx’s BlackStack software – which allows edge communications nodes to more rapidly process the RF environment, without the typical time lag and pipe-availability issues traditionally associated with EW and SIGINT tradecraft.

The UK’s MASS provides an advanced EW data-management platform to house threat libraries and weapon system signatures for real-time referencing at the edge.

And in the adjacent image intelligence (IMINT) world, capabilities from Cubic’s Teralogics and MotionDSP subsidiaries, among others, allow for much more rapid processing and exploitation of full-motion video files in disadvantaged locations.

The Benefit to Modular, Open-Systems Architectures

Multi-function RF systems, which are increasingly compliant with emerging standards such as SOSA, are critical for enabling DoD customers to achieve open-systems objectives at the sub-system level. As customers’ sophistication and connectivity to the warfighter grow, “vendor lock” is seen as a real barrier to capability development, not just an inconvenience.

Leveraging “best of breed” on a highly regular basis is seen as the only way for DoD to stay ahead of adversaries who may not be as wedded to legacy systems and suppliers.

Some boardrooms look negatively at open standards, which have obvious implications for margins and long-term incumbency – two traditional markers of successful defense businesses.

But buying behaviors among defense customers, driven largely by the rapid evolution of the threat environment, are changing.

Additionally, the “pie,” in a business and market sense, is getting bigger, with the Tactical RF Market growing by ~7% annually to $4.5 billion from 2020-2025 (source: Avascent analysis).

For this reason, open, modular approaches have scarcely been detrimental to vendors like Mercury Systems, whose stock price has more than tripled since the beginning of 2017.

Therefore, as DoD increasingly recognizes the value of these multi-function RF modules in achieving MOSA objectives, systems integrators will need to proactively partner with and source from RF subsystem providers.

The alternative is displacement by these firms, or by integrators more willing to build MOSA hardware into their design and ultimate sustainment approaches.

The Impact on Positive Communications & JADC2

Beyond the obvious benefits they bring to the electronic warfare community, the positive communications attributes of software-defined, multi-function RF systems are only now beginning to be explored and exploited.

These boxes are perfectly suited to adopt “throwaway” commercially-derived, lightweight communications waveforms, which can be discarded once exploited by the enemy and replaced with novel waveforms – no hardware modifications needed.

Their comparatively low cost and SWAP advantages also make them ideal for attritable assets that will need a positive communications function (situational awareness, GPS alternative/pseudolite, V/UHF relay, etc.) operating alongside active SIGINT and EW functions in a space-constrained bay.

Perhaps the fullest reach of these capabilities will be seen as the various movements toward JADC2 coalesce into a truly joint, lightweight, and layered approach to command and control, signals intelligence, and electronic warfare.

Commanders will have the ability to design mission sets with a broad mix of high/low capabilities, with cheap-but-capable unmanned assets operating in teams with populated, high-end ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles.

As DoD customers conduct a variety of experiments through ABMS, Project Convergence, and other efforts to realize this mosaic approach, a concerted focus on the electronic subsystems required to make it all happen is merited.

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