The Mil & Aero Blog
Thursday, December 27, 2007
  Pentagon's 'Internet in space' appears headed for trouble
Posted by John Keller

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is placing all of its eggs into the basket of network-centric warfare -- or the notion that everything from aircraft and warships to individual infantry soldiers should be connected on a massive military network similar to the Internet.

This idea of networking everything of military utility makes a lot of sense, if the systems are managed right, the experts pay meticulous attention to information security, and the fighting forces have sufficient network bandwidth to prevail.

You can imagine a world where the military commanders have access to every sensor on the battlefield. In theory, this approach has the potential to clear what Clausewitz called the fog of war.

There are a lot of "ifs" in network-centric warfare, and one of the biggest of them appears to be in trouble, according to a story by Andy Pasztor in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. It appears the Pentagon's Transformational Satellite communications system -- TSAT for short -- is headed for funding trouble in the DOD's next budget request that could have profound ramifications on the program. Writes Pasztor:

The Bush administration in February is expected to propose reducing spending on the program to about $8 billion through 2013 -- $4 billion less than the total Boeing and other contractors had anticipated a few weeks ago, according to industry officials familiar with the details. Spending plans had been slowed and stretched out in previous budget cycles, and the program's champions are fretting that it may not survive further scale backs.

The TSAT is a different animal where global communications are concerned. Its design proposes using extensive laser communications cross links among orbiting communications satellites to speed and increase the bandwidth of U.S. military satellite communications systems throughout the world.

Lasers carry tremendous amounts of information and are far less vulnerable to enemy intercepts or jamming than are their slower RF signal cousins.

It's obvious that TSAT will be expensive to develop, and that experimental failures will occur in the future. This is how scientists learn about potential problems, compensate for them, and perfect technological designs.

Starving the TSAT program of vital development money in its early stages because of development worries or potential cost overruns down the line is no way to go about this. TSAT will represent a fundamental advancement in worldwide communications and could give rise to tremendous commercial communications advantages.

Developing TSAT will be long, hard, and expensive, yet it's worth the support of the Pentagon and Congress.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
  It's a dangerous world, even for Santa Claus

Posted by John Keller

We live in a dangerous world, and it's getting more dangerous all the time. Among the things we do in our national-threat-level-yellow world is try -- with diminishing success, sadly -- to protect our cultural institutions from harm.

We encourage our kids on Christmas Eve to sleep worry-free, and invite those visions of sugar plums to dance in their tiny heads without interruption from our global strife.

That is until now.

The rising tide of danger and dread has finally reached one of the defining icons of the holiday season -- Santa Claus, himself. You can giggle all you want, but evidently this isn't a laughing matter.

Just a few days ago, while on pre-Christmas training mission, Santa Claus came under fire over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That's right, people starting shooting at the right jolly old elf as he hovered over the city in a Brazilian coast guard helicopter. The aircraft, as a result, had to return to base with two bullet holes in the fuselage.

Not to be deterred, Santa returned by car to distribute his gifts, but holy moley! It's come to this, and not even on Santa's primary workday. What's it going be like on Christmas Eve? Santa's got heavier neighborhoods to work that night than Rio.

Fortunately, it seems, the authorities are starting to take action. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs, Colo., has sent out press announcements that its personnel will be tracking Santa and his sleigh on Christmas Eve. You can even track Santa along with NORAD on the Internet.

Those NORAD experts had better be on their toes. Think about it. Santa is coming down from the North Pole, which during the Cold War was considered to be the primary path of Soviet nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles in time of nuclear war.

That airspace over the pole is one of the most closely watch patches of sky on the planet. Think of the DEW line and the Pave Paws radar systems, and of the F-16 pilots on alert at Thule Air Base, Greenland, and at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.

I sincerely hope that Santa remembers to turn on his transponder when he makes his rounds. I wouldn't want to see an accident during a tense intercept on Christmas Eve. I'm sure there will be NOTAMs in effect during that time, but I'm not sure how well Rudolph would fare in an encounter with a Sidewinder missile.

None of this global tension, it seems, is lost on Santa Claus, either. Wired's Danger Room blog has an interesting depiction of what Santa's mood must be like these days.

It's such that Santa and his advisors evidently are designing a new kind of sleigh to cope with this modern world of ours.

I suppose these things were inevitable, given the circumstances. Everyone have a merry Christmas this year -- and let's be careful out there.
Friday, December 21, 2007
  Could the Navy and Coast Guard use the same ship? Who knew?
Posted by John Keller

I can't help myself; I just love it when sanity rears its ugly head. Such was the case yesterday when a key member of Congress finally ... FINALLY, recommended the obvious -- that the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard think about combining at least parts of two remarkably similar surface warship programs.

The key congressman is U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who is proposing a merger of the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the Coast Guard's National Security Cutter. Taylor's recommendation was reported on, and you can read the story here.

I've often wondered, and used to ask a lot of questions, why the Navy and Coast Guard were pursuing two very expensive but eerily similar major surface ship programs. The answers I generally received amounted to something like 'don't worry your pretty little head about this; the Navy and Coast Guard have such vastly different missions that no one conceivable ship design could ever come close to meeting their diverse requirements. Besides, the Navy is part of the Defense Department and Coast Guard is part of Homeland Security. Simply asking why shows how little you understand the issues.'

Hey, I'm willing -- eager, in fact -- to leave weighty problems like warship design to the experts. My pondering had to be not just naive, but silly. I admitted such and moved forward.

Still, it kept nagging at me ever since I started learning about the Littoral Combat Ship and the National Security Cutter, also known as the Maritime Security Cutter. In my ill-informed, non-nautical thinking, it seemed to me that the National Security Cutter was a super-cutter -- not quite a frigate, but something close.

On the other hand, the Littoral Combat Ship, it seemed, was trying to be something like a baby frigate -- something smaller, and optimized for operations close-in to shore, rather than for blue-water operations escorting carrier battle groups and the like.

Super-cutter, baby frigate. It always sounded like the same thing to me, but approached from opposite directions. Maybe it could save a lot of money at least to use the same hull, I thought.

But no matter. I stopped worrying my pretty little head about this a long time ago. It's satisfying, however, to see that members of Congress have started wrangling with it, for a change.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
  I'm learning something about you; yeah, I'm talking about you
Posted by John Keller

How shy you all are. I had no idea.

Obviously this is one of the perils of blogging in the business-to-business business -- you know, the business we're all in. Nobody likes to talk where they might be overheard ... no one except me, that is.

That's the way it feels, anyway.

I'm not going to talk about electronics, or electro-optics, or the military today. I'm going to talk about blogging. You all who aren't interested can get back to whatever else you're doing now, but for the rest of you who stay I really gotta put you on the hot seat. You're not talking to me, and I'm starting to feel very alone.

First of all, I know you're reading this blog. Yesterday -- not to brag, but to make a point -- The Mil & Aero Blog got 255 page views. For our community that's pretty good. Since we started our blog just last Nov. 27 we've had about 900 page views, and that number grows every day.

My problem, however, is nobody's commenting -- at least not on the blog. I write a blog about a new kind of electrical current, which in our community you might expect to generate some discussion. Nothing. I write a piece about tiny cryogenic coolers for on-board electronic components. This in an industry that's so obsessed about cooling that some say this issue is what could put Moore's Law to bed. Silence. On Pearl Harbor Day I wrote a personal reminiscence about the battleship USS Arizona and about a great piece I saw in the Wall Street Journal that talks about surviving artifacts from that ship that still exist out of the public view. Crickets.

I even got a nice e-mail note from the author of the Wall Street Journal story I cited, but I sure didn't get any comments on the blog. It's not just us, either. There are good blogs out there, and if ours is any indication, you out there are reading them with some enthusiasm.

Head over to the blog at Embedded Now, and read what Don Dingee and his colleagues are writing about. It's good stuff, but hardly anybody is commenting (except me; I am, in fact, jkellermae). I recommend the blog at VME Now, but go look. No comments. VME Now editor Chris Ciufo and his people have to be feeling very neglected. Aviation Week has an absolutely great blog called Ares: A Defense Technology Blog that I think you all would enjoy. Bill Sweetman can be pretty funny in print (he's not so bad in person, either) and he's worth a read. But look at the comments they're getting. Nada. And they deserve so much better.

You are shy guys and gals out there.

Maybe I've got something to learn that other bloggers in our community already know. Maybe, despite prodding, begging, and cajoling, you all just aren't the type to comment on blogs. If that's the case, I'll quit nagging you. But if you are the types to comment, then please get off your duffs, quit your lurking, and talk to me. I thought we were having a conversation here, after all. Let me know that I'm not in here all by myself.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
  Military eyes MEMS weapons detonators that could be fabbed on IC lines
Posted by John Keller

U.S. military experts are looking into a new way of manufacturing small, reliable, and inexpensive detonators for weapons such as missiles, torpedoes, and smart artillery shells.

The next generation of detonators may rely on nanometer- and micron-size copper structures manufactured on integrated circuit (IC) lines, and then chemically converted into tiny explosives, according to a story online at entitled Unique Porous Copper Structure Enables New Generation Of Military Micro-Detonators.

Research into these new detonators is happening at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) in Atlanta and the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indian Head, Md.

The Indian Head Division, among other things, is responsible for Navy research into propulsion systems, explosives, pyrotechnics, warheads, and simulators.

Because they can be integrated into standard microelectronics fabrication processes, the copper materials will enable micro-electromechanical (MEMS) fuzes for military munitions to be mass-produced like computer chips, according to in the story that appears today.

These new fuzes will measure about one square centimeter that could be manufactured on a large scale on IC fabrication lines. quotes Michael Beggans, a scientist in the Energetics Technology Department at Indian Head on the benefits of extremely small detonators:

"Today, everything is becoming smaller, consuming less power and offering more functionality," Beggans added. "When you hear that a weapon is 'smart,' it's really all about the fuze. The fuze is 'smart' in that it knows the exact environment that the weapon needs to be in, and detonates it at the right time. The MEMS fuze would provide 'smart' functionality in medium-caliber and sub-munitions, improving results and reducing collateral damage."

Detonators have always been problematic for weapons designers, and the U.S. Navy historically has had difficult times with detonators on munitions like torpedoes. In the opening months of World War II in the Pacific, Navy submarine commanders experienced many failures on the Mark XIV torpedo. Navy experts to this day are particularly sensitive to detonator issues because of this.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
  Army organization to harvest the best videogame graphics for computer simulation
Posted by John Keller

You may have seen accounts in the mainstream press of how the U.S. Army is creating a new office of videogames. It's a catchy theme, but it's not quite what's going on.

When you take a closer look, this is not so much a videogame story, but is actually a COTS story involving military simulation and training that has been unfolding for quite a long time.

The Army is trying to save money and speed computer-based simulation and training to a growing number of its personnel by using the most realistic graphics developed in the video gaming industry.

Better yet, the Army is trying to make the best videogame graphics available to its soldiers to create their own custom computer simulation training scenarios to get the most out of their training time.

The confusion -- and the cute news peg picked up by the popular press -- comes from the name of the organization that has taken this project up. The new group is the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Project Office for Gaming -- TPO Gaming for short -- at TRADOC’s National Simulation Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The folks at the Training and Simulation Journal's Website,, rightly point out that a better name for the organization might be “TPO Gaming Technology.” Let's face it, the military is often very good at what it does, but naming organizations is not its strong suit.

The Army is acknowledging the quality of videogame graphics developed in private industry and putting existing technology to military use. This is precisely the intent and spirit of commercial off-the-shelf technology, or COTS.

This has been going on in military training and simulation for many years. Here's a story on the subject that we published nearly a decade ago. Harvesting the best technology from commercial videogames has enabled the military to extend the benefits of computer-based simulation to many more people than used to have access to it.

A couple of decades ago, about the only people who had access to computer simulation training were aircraft pilots. Today it's available to vehicle drivers, medical personnel, mechanics, and many more.

It's the kind of COTS use that TPO Gaming is undertaking that has made this possible.
Monday, December 17, 2007
  AWACS and Hawkeye flight crews soon may disappear into the pages of history
Posted by John Keller

Way down deep, many of today's military's aircraft pilots and crew must know that their numbers will dwindle in the future as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) take over the roles of manned aircraft -- but I don't think they thought it would happen quite so soon.

Technology developments in Israel may signal the beginning of the end for pilots and crew of front-line strategic surveillance aircraft like the U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft and the U.S. Navy E-2 Hawkeye carrier-based radar early warning aircraft.

The Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) aircraft from the Elta Group of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. in Ashdod, Israel will reach initial operational capability by this winter. More importantly, the CAEW's Gulfstream G550 aircraft already is designed to operate without radar operators aboard, report our friends at According to the story Drone AEW Not Too Far Off at DefenseTech:

With a wideband datalink, it's intended to feed information to a ground station, and ultimately will be part of a tight network that also includes signals intelligence, maritime patrol and ground-surveillance G550s. The final step is to take the flight crew off the aircraft, according to Avishai Itzhakian, general manager for IAI-Elta's AEW division. Speaking at IQPC Defence's AEW conference in London last week, Itzhakian outlined the project's goal -- to provide continuous air, land, sea and electronic surveillance with a constellation of UAVs.

It's not a far leap from an unmanned Israeli surveillance and radar early warning aircraft to seeing pilotless and crewless future AWACS and Hawkeye aircraft.

When I was a cub reporter 26 years ago covering the Navy's Pacific Fleet Light Attack Wing at Lemoore Naval Air Station, Calif., I never even thought about unmanned aircraft. That was the stuff of science fiction.

The light-attack pilots I knew back then who were flying the first F/A-18 Hornet strike fighters, as well as the A-7 Corsair II jets and even A-4 Skyhawk light bombers were almost bigger than life to me then. Sitting for a beer with these guys, and listening to their stories, is something I dearly loved to do.

Now it looks like over the next decade or so that a lot of pilots and aircraft crew could be out of a job.

I can understand how UAVs represent something that particularly fighter and bomber pilots have long resisted -- even after they are long out of the cockpits and into senior command jobs. The lore and romance of the white silk scarf on combat pilots will be difficult see fade away.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
  The weekend blog: worldwide electronics sales show serious signs of cooling off
Posted by John Keller

Market researcher IC Insights Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. is releasing a dismal report on worldwide shipments of electronics systems, which says sales in 2007 will represent the smallest growth since electronics manufacturers recovered from the 2001-2002 downturn in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the telecom bust.

Also bad news for our industry, IC Insights is altering its integrated circuit forecasts and 2008 is not expected to be a big year, as believed last year. A year ago IC Insights projected the semiconductor market would grow by 7 percent in 2007 and 20 percent in 2008, but has lowered its IC forecast to 2 percent growth in 2007 in its latest report.

Growth in defense electronics spending, meanwhile, also is starting to cool off after years of growth during the Bush Administration. The 2008 Defense Department budget request contained spending cuts for procurement and research in communications, electronics, telecommunications, and intelligence (CET&I) technologies.

Industry experts also are predicting that overall defense spending has peaked for the time being, and should begin a long-term shallow decline, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan start winding down next year and a war-weary Democrat Congress starts looking for other ways to spend the taxpayers money.

In all this doom and gloom, however, folks in our industry should not lose sight of the promise of defense spending. Even when military spending is on the downturn, as it apparently will be for a while, it still represents a large and reliable source of income for technology companies.

Think of the huge ups and downs we've seen in commercial industries like telecommunications and Internet technologies. Military spending is steady and reliable by comparison. Sure, spending in our industry may be scaling back, but it's still a large and promising business to be in.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
  Dousing political fires with armored combat vehicles

Posted by John Keller

It doesn't make much sense, which is what makes it so believable. When the federal government -- any agency in the federal government -- encounters a big, potentially embarrassing problem, it overwhelms the problem with money and resources. No matter if the expenditures actually solve the problem or not, by God the government is going to do something about it!

Even if what the government ultimately does is just silly.

So it is lately with the so-called mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle, better-known as MRAP. Congress went nuts forcing these MRAPs on U.S. fighting forces in the Middle East in the wake of controversies about under-armored Humvees, which were blamed for causing the deaths of too many American kids in uniform.

Now the Pentagon is crying uncle, as Army and Marine Corps units are drowning in MRAPs. They've got too many and don't need any more, which could be depriving the Congress of making more political hay of tragic American deaths in combat theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Christian Lowe had a great piece in the Daily Standard about the MRAP glut. He also has a blog in Defense Tech saying he told us so.

I wish I could say I'm surprised, but I've been covering the federal government now for 26 years, and I've seen it too many times before. Watch the next time there's a world-ending forest fire out West. God bless 'em, the federal agencies put out these fires almost literally by pouring money on them.

I can't blame Congress for wanting to take action to keep American kids in uniform out of harm's way with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) sown thick as cabbages on Iraqi highways. But would it be a crime to think the problem through and consider -- just for a minute -- if pouring buckets of armored vehicles on the problem was the best way to go?
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
  Taking care of constituents, and bringing home the bacon
Posted by John Keller

It's not often you see three-quarters of a state's congressional delegation in the same room -- unless it's a joint session of Congress for events like the president's state-of-the-union speech. Yet gather a lot of potential voters where bread-and-butter issues are involved, and congressmen and senators tend to clear their calendars.

We live in an era of intensely partisan politics, yet there's nothing like thousands of voters and millions of dollars in federal money to bring Democrats and Republicans together.

It was such a day Monday, despite the gray, slushy weather with temperatures in the mid-20s at the BAE Systems Electronics & Integrated Solutions segment in Nashua, N.H., where company leaders dedicated a new integrated electronics manufacturing facility for electronic warfare systems called the RF Systems Common Build.

BAE Systems is doing great things in manufacturing. Company leaders are put the finishing touches on facilities in New Hampshire -- with the latest demand-driven supply chain management -- to build the electronic warfare systems for the F-22 Raptor advanced tactical fighter, the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, and other yet-unknown future military aircraft.

In the process, incidentally, they've evacuated 15,000 square feet of manufacturing floor at the Nashua plant, which will be rededicated by as early as this spring, to start manufacturing electronic systems to defeat terrorist weapons like improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

The new facility dedication on Monday -- with its requisite ribbon cutting -- ostensibly is what drew Democratic U.S. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, as well as Republican Sen. John Sununu. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg couldn't make it, but his senior staff was there to represent him.

It's nice to think that members of Congress, with their busy schedules, could make time for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Think about it, though. They jumped at BAE's invitation because this is where the rubber meets the road as far as local politics is concerned.

BAE Systems employs 1,400 people in New Hampshire, and controls upwards $80 million in federal technology contracts. It's one of the state's largest employers, and federal budget season is just around the corner. It's easy to imagine that scenes like this are going on at defense contractors all around the country.

In less than two months time, the Pentagon will unveil its fiscal 2009 budget request. BAE understandably wants to keep the money flowing for F-22s and F-35s, for which BAE Systems provides all the electronic warfare systems.

Republic or Democrat, war or anti-war, all of New Hampshire's congressional delegation wants to keep that F-22 and F-35 money flowing, too. Jobs and votes depend on it. That's taking care of constituents, and bringing home the bacon.

With all the infighting we see and hear about at campaign stops and on the campaign commercials inundating the airwaves, it's interesting -- and not just a little entertaining -- to see real politics unfold at something as ordinary as a ribbon cutting.
Monday, December 10, 2007
  Stealth-detecting bistatic radar is back in the news
Posted by John Keller

I can remember back in the mid '80s when rumors first started circulating widely in print of a secret military aircraft under development that would be invisible to radar. During those Cold War days that meant that U.S. and allied aircraft might be able to have unlimited access to airspace over the Soviet Union.

Those rumors eventually morphed into the official announcement of the F-117 stealth fighter. Radar-evading technology developed for the F-117 was applied to the B-2 stealth bomber, but experts speculated that if we had this radar-evading technology, then our adversaries would have it, too.

With that realization came feverish discussion of how to defend against stealth technology. The discussion quickly included not only stealthy manned aircraft, but also low-flying cruise missiles that radar had a hard time picking up.

One of the counter-stealth technologies then was called hybrid bistatic radar, which eventually came to be known simply as bistatic radar -- a scheme where the radar transmitters and detectors were in separate locations.

Bill Sweetman wrote on the Aviation Week defense technology blog this month of a formerly secret project to defend Swedish airspace against stealthy cruise missiles with a bistatic radar approach called the Associative Aperture Synthesis Radar (AASR).

The AASR program, Sweetman wrote, was cancelled in 2000 because at the time experts no longer considered cruise missiles a threat. U.S. bistatic radar and other anti-cruise-missile programs have fallen by the wayside, as well, as research dollars have shifted to other priorities.

A similar casualty of post-Cold-War defense priorities was the so-called Over The Horizon-Backscatter radar system, or OTH-B. This experimental system was to bounce radar waves off the ionosphere -- just like shortwave radio signals do -- not only to extend radar defenses against cruise missile threats, but also to help radar pick up low-flying cruise missiles in ground clutter.

I always thought bistatic radar was a good and obvious idea, and not only for counter-stealth. Conventional radar is a double-edged sword; it can detect the enemy, but also gives away the location of the transmitter. It's like turning on a flashlight in dark woods. Everything in the vicinity knows you're there.

Not so with bistatic radar. If defense researchers could use it to make and deploy a practical system, then perhaps stealth fighters could use radar and still remain stealthy.

If bistatic radar research is going on, it's being done quietly. Depending on how military threats emerge in the future, I think we'll hear of this technology again.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
  The weekend blog: Is aerospace industry optimism on solid ground?

Posted by John Keller

The Aerospace Industries Association released a rather cheery forecast of 2008 sales of military and civil aircraft, missiles, space, and aerospace products this past week at its annual year-end luncheon for industry executives and the press.

The group's forecast says sales revenue for everything but military aircraft will increase next year, and AIA experts say sales increases could continue their growth until 2010 and beyond. This forecast concerns me because it sounds a little too optimistic.

Let's look at the civil aerospace sector, which includes commercial transports, business jets, general aviation aircraft, helicopters, engines, and related components. The big-ticket items here are commercial jetliners.

I look at rising fuel costs and wonder how long it will be before the airlines have to raise ticket prices substantially enough to cover their fuel costs that pleasure-travel coach passengers start staying home. I don't think we'll see a big decrease in business travelers, but I think a lot of the blockbuster tourist air travel deals are going away.

This has the potential to reduce projected growth in airline travel, and if that's the case the decrease will cut into civil aircraft sales. Yes, I know; all projections are for stead increases in airline ridership, but I don't think all those projections for growth took fuel costs into consideration.

Now let's take a look at military aircraft. The AIA predicts a slight decrease in sales from $54.85 billion this year to $52.21 billion in 2008. This is probably on target. Still, I think military aircraft sales in future years could be a drag on overall aerospace industry sales.

Lockheed Martin is already warning its suppliers of a possible halt in F-22 budget requests next year, and that could be a trend. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs may be on the rise, as well. Unless a credible international threat emerges that requires an increase in military aircraft, I don't see this area as a bright spot in the overall aerospace industry budget.

Missiles could be interesting. The AIA says sales in 2007 will be $17.67 billion, and will increase to $18.66 billion in 2008. This also could be on target, or might be slightly understated. Ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan call for a steady consumption of missiles, and U.S. military forces have to start thinking about replenishing their inventories.

Space is a big question mark. AIA says spending for space will be $39.18 billion in 2007 and increase by 5 percent to $41.17 billion in 2008. This concerns me because as of right now U.S. space exploration is more talk than action. We'll have a Democrat Congress next year and a change in administration. If things are tight, as they look like right now, then space spending will be a tempting place to cut.

I'm not trying to be over-pessimistic. I hope the AIA is correct in its predictions. Something tells me, however, that the kind of fiscal growth we have become accustomed to in the aerospace business has got to come to a halt. Here's hoping I'm wrong.
Friday, December 7, 2007
  The touch of history: remembering the USS Arizona

Posted by John Keller

I've always been haunted by my own thoughts and imagination of the ill-fated battleship USS Arizona, which was sunk in a fiery explosion 66 years ago today with 1,177 sailors and marines aboard. I've read about it, dreamed about it, built a model of it. It's one of those things I can't escape.

Today you'll read countless articles recounting the Pearl Harbor attack and the Arizona's sinking. Click here to see what I mean.

The most interesting, real, and chilling story I've read lately about Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona is about the little-known surviving artifacts of the sunken battleship, which still exist at Pearl Harbor behind locked gates and out of the public's view.

The story is entitled The 'Sacred Relics' of Pearl Harbor, which appeared three days ago in the Wall Street Journal. The account, by Brian M. Sobel, discusses the warship's surviving relics -- like the Arizona's main mast with its ladder still bolted inside -- that are stored in a secret location on Waipio Peninsula in Honolulu.

What strikes me most about the story is its account of the power of actually touching the metal that was part of the Arizona. It was the same for me a few years ago when I visited the Arizona Memorial. I spent several minutes, I remember, just leaning out from the memorial's visitor deck to put my hand on a big rusty pipe sticking up from the sunken warship, which still rests in the mud of Pearl Harbor, slowly leaking drops of heavy bunker fuel oil known as "black tears."

Touching always makes things seem more real. I don't know why, but it does. I've touched one of the B-29 bombers that dropped atom bombs on Japan to end the war that Pearl Harbor started. In my historical re-enacting experiences I've jerked the lanyard to fire an iron cannon that was part of a Union battery on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg. I've held a rifle that was used at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and yet nothing moved me so deeply as reaching out and touching the Arizona that day.

I'm hoping the federal government takes good care of those artifacts from the Arizona battleship, and that one day all of us can go see them in a museum. I'd like more people to be able to experience what I did.

Take a moment today to remember Pearl Harbor, the Arizona, and the people who died there. It was our parents' and our grandparents' 9/11.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
  Heat-exchanger cooling at the chip and board level

Posted by John Keller

Our community has a lot of board and systems designers who are tearing their hair out over how to cool powerful electronics packaged into tight spaces like unmanned aerial vehicles.

Exotic cooling methods such as liquid flow-through cooling and liquid spray cooling, although they are approaching the mainstream, are still complex, expensive, take up space and power, and introduce maintenance issues that most engineers simply would rather not deal with.

Now a company in North Carolina called Nextreme Thermal Solutions Inc. has come up with a way to package heat exchangers that are as small as 1 by 1 millimeter. The company, in fact, will start shipping heat exchangers of that size later this month, says Jesko von Windheim, Nextreme's CEO.

Board designers are struggling with ways to delay or avoid the switch from conventional cooling methods such as conduction and convection cooling to the exotic liquid approaches, and Nextreme's solution just might do the trick. The technology, which Nextreme calls the Thermal Copper Pillar Bump, can be RoHS compliant, or can be supplied to the military with traditional tin-lead solder.

Nextreme's solution, which uses copper pillar bumping used in high-volume electronic packaging, also can generate small amounts of power from ambient heat. It's not enough to power the heat exchangers themselves, but it does have some engineers thinking.

Aircraft designers at Boeing, in fact, are considering Nextreme's devices to power the window-darkening feature on the future 787 Dreamliner commercial aircraft. The 787's windows will be one-third larger than conventional jetliner windows, thanks to the aircraft's composite structure, and the windows will be able to lighten and darken a substitute for common aircraft window shades.

One of the best areas for Nextreme's tiny heat exchangers is to cool hot spots on chips or on boards. If designers are trying to get the heat out of these troublesome hot spots, they might want to give this a look. Nextreme is on the Web at
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
  Spintronics: a new kind of electrical current?
Posted by John Keller

Scientists at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington reportedly have been able to generate and control a new kind of electrical current -- spin current, as opposed to charge current -- which holds the potential to increase performance, decrease power consumption, and improve heat dissipation in electronics.

I first saw this story on Slashdot, and it sounds pretty interesting. Talk to any electronics engineer, and the discussion inevitably moves to improving performance, using less electricity, and dumping excess heat. These represent the holy grail of electronics development. Now maybe the Navy is getting us closer to these goals.

This research area is called spintronics, which seeks to build electronics that rely on electron spin rather than electron charge to carry information. The NRL scientists were able to generate, modulate, and electrically detect a pure spin current in silicon, the most common semiconductor material for electronics.

It's not clear how far away this technology might be from practical use. If NRL is doing it, it's still pretty much in the area of sandboxy pure research, but NRL's work certainly is encouraging to military and aerospace electronics who are trying to design electronics for tiny spaces aboard a growing variety of unmanned vehicles, wearable computers, portable sensors, and other equipment.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
  Nukes, or no nukes?
Posted by John Keller

Call me naive and misguided, if you like, but generally I tend to believe the estimates of U.S. intelligence agencies. Let's face it, they're better than I am -- they have more resources and nicer offices -- at judging where in the world are the real threats to U.S. national security. I thought so, at least.

I have to admit, however, that my confidence in the intelligence experts is shaken this morning. For quite a while now I and other people, some of them intelligent and respectable people, have labored under the assumption that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. This assumption has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy for many months, accompanied by saber rattling and international threats of economic sanctions on that country.

But this morning I awaken to new reports from U.S. intelligence experts that Iran really ISN'T developing nuclear weapons ... furthermore that they haven't been pursuing nuclear weapons since 2003. That's four years ago. I know the government can be slow in getting the word, but four years ago?

Now what to believe? For months the experts have been warning us that Iran shortly will have nuclear weapons with which they could menace Israel and other country in the Middle East within range of its ballistic missiles. But this morning? Never mind. This from the International Herald Tribune:

But the new estimate declares with "high confidence" that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform that raw material into a nuclear weapon has been shut down since 2003, and also says with high confidence that the halt "was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure."

I only wish I could say I still have "high confidence" in the ability of U.S. intelligence agencies to get the story right.
Monday, December 3, 2007
  Too early to declare Iran a regional submarine threat
Posted by John Keller

Most of us view reports of Iranian nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development with concern. I don't see the potential emergence of Iran as a nuclear threat to be in any way positive in terms of Middle Eastern and global political stability.

Now comes another report of Iranian arms development, which might be worrisome to U.S. military experts and their allies.

It seems that Iran is unveiling not only a domestically manufactured destroyer surface warship, but an Iranian-made attack submarine, as well. Both were to have been unveiled last week -- a Ghadir-class submarine, and a Jamaran-class destroyer. This is according to the The Jerusalem Post on 25 Nov.:

Days ahead of the Annapolis peace conference, Iran flexed its military muscles on Saturday, announcing plans to unveil a new homemade submarine and navy destroyer later this week. Iranian Naval Commander Admiral Habib Sayyari said Saturday that the navy would launch a homemade destroyer called Jamaran and a submarine called Ghadir on November 28. Ghadir is a religious holiday which marks the day Shi'ite Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon and confirmed Ali ibn Abi Talib's appointment as his successor. Iran has boasted in the past that its new Ghadir-class submarine could not be detected and was capable of firing missiles and torpedoes simultaneously.

I don't think it's time to panic yet, however. It looks suspiciously like the new Ghadir-class submarine is a mini submarine of questionable endurance, armament, and stealth. I saw a few pictures -- and even a video -- involving the submarine on the Internet, and it doesn't look all that fearsome. I could be wrong, however, and I'm keeping an eye on this. Bear in mind that Iran already has three decades-old Soviet-era Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines in unknown states of repair.

U.S. Navy forces are designed to detect and counter the world's most advanced surface and subsurface threats, so I don't see an imminent new naval threat emerging in the Middle East, yet anyway.

This isn't to say, however, that U.S. naval forces don't occasionally let things slide. Little more than a year ago a Chinese attack submarine surfaced within sight of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. It's not clear if naval forces in the area had detected the presence of the Chinese submarine, but nonetheless the Chinese could claim a clear propaganda victory.

I'm a big proponent of keeping U.S. antisubmarine warfare forces strong and up to date. It wouldn't take long for nearly any undetected hostile submarine to wreak havoc on U.S. naval forces and international shipping. Iran might not be a serious submarine threat today, but they may be heading in that direction.
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