Owing almost $16 trillion dollars can make even the most free-spending of governments more fiscally responsible. The Pentagon has been the beneficiary of 10 continuous years of military budget increases. But with planning for the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 federal budgets coming during an election year, there is no doubt that the US Department of Defense (DoD) will have less operating capital next year. And less DoD dollars will directly translate into less RF and microwave dollars.

The DoD's budget accounts for about 20% of total annual federal spending, the impact of which can be readily seen in many of the catalogs and websites for companies throughout the RF/microwave industry. Affected products range from electronic components and modules for electronic-warfare (EW) and radar applications to devices for terrestrial and satellite-communications (satcom) systems.

Some of the reductions in defense spending will come from diminishing overseas operations (e.g., the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Overall, the Pentagon is planning for a year-over-year decrease in its FY2013 budget and, hopefully, the start of a trend that will result in about $487 billion in cuts over the next decade. The DoD goal is for a smaller, more-agile fighting force, with less fighter aircraft, ships, and fighting forces.

Politicians will argue that a defense force with so many fewer troops will be "toothless" when needed. But military professionals should take some comfort from the concept of more agile fighting forces, backed by judicious use of technology.

Scaled-back military budgets should not put an end to technology advancements at major contractors, but merely a rethinking of their approaches. Far-reaching and over-ambitious efforts should be replaced with more practical attempts to equip soldiers in the field with reliable and secure communications, EW, radar, and countermeasures systems. History has shown that almost any electronic product can be improved over time and made smaller and lighter and for less. The move towards using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic components was a step in the right direction.

In addition, many of the technologies that military funding has helped to developsuch as software-defined radios (SDRs) and cognitive radios (CRs)lend themselves to cost reductions over time by "borrowing" technology from leading computer chip manufacturers, without sacrificing the encryption security and in-the-field reliability that those radio technologies provide. Quite often, the DoD's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is viewed as a form of "cash channel" to different industries, including the RF/microwave industry, for technologies that may serve little purpose. But it should also be pointed out that DARPA's funding of this industry has enabled such technologies as GaAs MMICs, and GaN and SiC power transistors.

Cutbacks in the defense budget will no doubt impact some companies in this industry. But those same cutbacks will also mean opportunities for others, provided they are willing to work with defense contractors on finding the means to advance technology while also achieving cost reductions.

Jack Browne
Contributing Editor