Whatever it takes

Instapundit (who continues to totally ignore MO) notes a Strategy Page story on traditional military suppliers unhappy with the recent trend of the military adopting off-the-shelf commercial items or gear quickly developed and produced by smaller, newer companies when they can.

The U.S. Army, in particular, is desperate to install as much “battlefield Internet” technology as possible. Rather than wait for the traditional military manufacturers to devise, develop and manufacture such systems, the army (often just the troops) is taking stuff off the shelf and adapting it to battlefield use. These interlopers are drawing sharp criticism from the traditional manufacturers, and the PR effort has an impact. But because of combat veterans lauding the new, cheaper, gear, and that news getting spread through new, non-traditional information outlets (mostly web based), it’s not been so easy to shut down the new manufacturers.

They Stryker LAV, which incorporates a great deal of the battlefield internet, is loaded with networking gear. I took this pic myself at the Chicago Auto Show last February:

(Click for better look) Despite the fuzziness, you get an idea of just how much electronic gear is crammed into these things. Both sides of the troop compartment were lined by such stuff. I wanted to take a closer look at some of the stuff, in fact, to see if any of it was commercial equipment, but I didn’t want to look too nosy.

Seems to me, though, if you can go down to Best Buy and pick up what you need, that’s the route to go. As long as it’s really what you need and not simply a way to save a few shekels.

Little mom-and-pop electronics firms won’t be able to build the really big stuff, of course. But it they can build the basic building blocks and components, they’re probably a better route than the big Military-Industrial Complex players. Those guys will always be building the heavy stuff, but to expect them to also keep up with the little stuff isn’t terribly realistic. The company that excels at missile guidance gear or integrated aircraft carrier navigation systems probably won’t also excel at network routers.

Transforming the military is more than just making the combat vehicles lighter.

(And go read the whole Strategy Page post. It’s about more than just home network gear.)


  1. You have to be a little careful though. A lot of consumer stuff is under-engineered – that is, it just barely works reliably in the situations it’s likely to be exposed to. Sometimes not even then. The military needs stuff that works inside a bit metal box in the desert and in sub-zero temperatures, when exposed to sand, poor power supply from generators, etc. You can definitely put together commercial computer equipment to do this but you have to know what you’re doing. You need to make sure there’s excess heat sink capacity, you use chips that don’t generate excessive amounts of heat, you have plenty of well designed cooling, there are air filters, the density is high enough that you don’t waste volume inside the vehicle, etc. We heard reports from the Strykers suggesting they didn’t do a good enough job of this – electronics heating, high failure rates, etc. I think this is likely because they used equipment that (a) just has to work in a regular home or office setting with heating and cooling and clean air and power and (b) has to be somewhat reliable, but it’s OK for something to fail fairly regularly. Like I said there’s plenty of commercial equipment which is overengineered and very robust, and you can do stuff like putting in lower speed CPUs with cooling designed for high speed ones so that it will work in higher temperatures and such, but you also have to be aware of these sorts of limitations.

  2. Also… If most of our military electronics are ‘Made in China’, And If we go to war with the Chinese, Then… /me nervous

  3. Hehe. There are parts which are made in the USA which can be subtituted in most cases I think, and pretty easily, although it may require another round of ‘ironing out problems’ when you swap one piece of hardware for another. For example, Supermicro make main boards in the USA (although unfortunately only for Intel chips. I wish they made some Athlon64/Opteron platforms). I’m not sure if Intel still makes chips in the USA. I know they make some in at least two locations in Asia (Malaysia and Phillipines?) and also in Ireland. They used to make some in Israel; not sure any more. I think AMD makes them in Germany. So CPUs could be a problem. I’m pretty sure IBM makes some in the USA? But they’re not x86 compatible… There is some good quality RAM manufactured in the USA I believe. I don’t know about hard drives. Basically, you can get most computer parts which are manufactured in the USA but you have to try hard. Most of it is Taiwan, China or some other place in Asia. At a squeeze, most fabs can take a design and start churning them out without TOO much fuss. (You CAN’T just take a chip design to a new factory and expect it to work BUT there are some people who have tried very hard to make it as painless as possible; I believe this is known as ‘physical characterisation’ of a process). If the balloon went up, I think that local manufacturing could take over before stocks of already manufactured parts run out, in cases where compatible parts aren’t already being made.

  4. Nicholas: Yeah, looking at my post it seems like I’m calling for stuff from Best Buy in Strykers. That’s not exactly what I meant. I was thinking more along the lines of commercial off-the-shelf stuff for regular bases and such, not in vehicles or on the front lines. And even then just the better stuff after it’s been verified. I imagine that there’s some stuff off-the-shelf that would be just fine in a Stryker (for instance) but you’re right that they had trouble with reliability. Great comments.

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