Unmanned systems, C4ISR funding strong: Good news for small form factors

As threats evolve around the globe, investment forecasts for military application areas such as command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) applications continue to grow. Boosted military spending benefits makers of small-form-factor embedded computing solutions, as these military applications also have stringent size and weight requirements answered by the smaller devices.

The U.S. military market is trending upward in terms of investment under the new Trump administration, a direction seen in the increase in the Department of Defense (DoD) FY 2018 budget request. Modernization of current radar, electronic warfare (EW), and ground-based and seaborne platforms continues, as well as added investment in research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) in new systems such as unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs).

Designers of these systems also are increasingly leveraging small form factors such as PC/104 and modules such as COM Express to meet the reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements of these systems.

“Unmanned systems (UAV/UGV/UUV) and C4 platforms have traditionally been great candidates for deploying mission-computing systems based on PC/104 or COM modules, since applications deployed on these types of platforms are especially sensitive to SWaP-C (size, weight, power, and cost) constraints,” says Mike Southworth, product marketing executive for Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions. “Also, generally speaking, mission-computing applications tend to be less processor-intensive than ISR, EW, or radar applications. The greater processing requirements typical of ISR, electronic warfare, and radar applications make them better suited for VPX architecture-based solutions, [which] can accommodate multiple high-performance SBCs [single-board computers], GPGPUs [general-purpose graphics processing units], or FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays] to meet the processing demands of digital-signal-intensive ISR, EW, or radar applications.”

“PC/104 use is also experiencing strong acceptance in the rest of the world’s defense applications, such as unmanned aircraft systems,” says Roy Keeler, senior product and business development manager for aerospace and defense at ADLINK.

According to market analysts, these application areas are projected to grow over the next five years.

Overall C4ISR market

“The key for C4ISR at the strategic level will be missile defense, and at the tactical level it will be sea and land platforms and electronic warfare,” says Brad Curran, industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “Globally, the emphasis is on making sure U.S. allies, NATO countries, Japan, Australia, have the technological capability to talk with us and share data and targeting. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) are going well financially and politically.

Frost and Sullivan’s forecast numbers reflect that positive growth: “For 2017 there has been about $42 billion spent on C4ISR technology with a growth rate of 3 percent through 2022. For 2017 programs of record, the services each got about $11 billion in program spending apiece. Within the DoD budget request, there were about 920 C4ISR program line items. The biggest area was surveillance and reconnaissance, with almost $48 billion funded at 6 percent CAGR; [This is an increase of about] $3 billion over the prior year. The fastest growing C4ISR application area is electronic warfare, up 22 percent from last year’s budget.”

Among the leading prime contractors there are no surprises. “The biggest C4ISR company is Lockheed Martin, with $5.4 billion in contract funding and with about 11 percent market share,” Curran says. “Next up is Northrop Grumman, at $5.26 billion or 10 percent market share.” The top ten primes received 47 percent of the money, he notes. “They are, from the top: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, General Atomics, BAE Systems, Booz Allen Hamilton, Microsoft, Leonardo, and Harris. At the end of 2016, there were 515 total prime contractors. There were also many little ones, but our numbers show a total of 1,274 major contracts totaling $51 billion.”

Unmanned aircraft

The unmanned aerial system (UAS) market continues to grow worldwide. “The unmanned aerial vehicle market is set to increase at 7 percent from 2015 through 2021, with market value eventually reaching a little over $6 billion in 2021, with a CAGR of 6.9 percent,” says Mike Blades, senior industry analyst, Aerospace & Defense, at Frost & Sullivan.

“When it comes to programs of record, the Global Hawk is getting a good deal of funding from the Air Force for capability investment and payload sensors,” Blades says. “Northrop Grumman is upgrading the sensors to bring U2 capability to the platform. They are spending $300 to $400 million every year just for Global Hawk. Actually, less than half of this is for procuring upgrades. A considerable amount is still for capabilities enhancements through RDT&E.

“The MQ-9 Reaper has obviously taken the place of the MQ-1 Predator in terms of procurement through 2021, with MQ-1 funding slowly decreasing over that period,” he continues. “This funding peaks in 2019 then starts to decrease as the platform is built out.

“For other major programs, it depends on when people are making a forecast, especially with the Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB), which – depending on when and who you ask – will or will not have an unmanned portion,” Blades says. “I believe it will be optionally manned and have some portion unmanned. This program ramps up to $3 billion in funding in 2021, according to the President’s FY 2018 budget request. The unmanned portion will possibly be loyal wingmen and may or may not be part of the LRSB procurement.”

Small UAS programs such as the RQ-11 Raven are slated to get about $300 to $600 million in funding through 2021, he continues. “Within the FY 2018 budget request, Special Operations has a line item under unmanned and this is likely for small UAS platforms, with funding for $20 to $30 million a year.”

Other applications getting both attention and funding include UAS as munitions and tethered UASs for persistent surveillance missions.

“Unmanned aircraft that function as loitering munitions are also having success, such as the Switchblade and the L-3 Cutlass, while the Israelis have small loitering munitions of several different sizes,” Blades says. “These systems are only going to become more prevalent. They also have the potential to be launched from other unmanned aircraft.

“Tethered UASs only account for 2 percent of the budget, but these drones are getting steady use,” he adds. “They provide a way around civil-aviation regulations, as they are not flying through the airspace, so fire departments and the like make use of them. The tethered platforms also function as test beds for testing sensors over long time periods.”

Figure 1: The Knifefish unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) from General Dynamics Mission Systems continues to get government funding for mine countermeasure applications. Photo courtesy of General Dynamics.


The unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) market “has been one of the few I’ve seen where military technology was not driving innovation,” Blades says. “Oil and gas companies were the ones funding development of these platforms. When the oil process market hit a downturn, innovation started again from the military side.

“A lot of money was spent on extra-large displacement UUVs, more of a submarine replacement. There was also a concentration of small UUVs that could form a swarm and do different things simultaneously. A lot of money is still being spent on LDUUV [large-displacement UUV] and XLUUV [extra-large UUV], as they are the largest contributors to UUV RDT&E funding.

Today “the primary mission of these platforms is mine countermeasures, which is the biggest segment and sees the most funding,” Blades continues. “These platforms are still mostly in R&D phases, as they take a long time for test and evaluation. In 2017, DoD officials spent $338 million out of the budget in RDT&E – most of it DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] funding – while total procurement was only about $65 million. The U.S. is still mostly in the RDT&E phase, and the rest of the world is the same way.

“Regarding programs, $28 million has been scheduled for an unmanned maritime system called Sea Mob,” Blades says. “Other programs receiving funding include the General Dynamics Knifefish [see Figure 1], Swordfish, and Kingfish. Most of these are centered around mine countermeasures. Procurement for Swordfish and KingFish is around $3 to $6 million. That is not a lot of funding, and it mostly targets maintenance.”