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Sounding Off: High-Tech Flying Coffins

(08/28/2006)

Tempe, Arizona - Government procurement practices have always been something of a mystery to many of us. Terribly complex practices, requirements, forms to fill out, and nomenclatures that called for a thick desk reference to interpret all became part of the military procurement process before most of today's industrial providers were born. With burgeoning technology, the procedures have become even more complicated, and I regard with total awe and amazement any company that can navigate all of these difficult waters successfully. From an era that gave birth to $1,000 hammers and toilet seats, the process has ameliorated somewhat to embrace the COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) hardware as an economically viable solution to many of the military's problems, and this has worked to some degree. But there is still a need for product to be extraordinarily rugged, and to be able to perform flawlessly under incredibly adverse field conditions. This is especially true of electronics used in our fighting machines, our aircraft, our tanks, our personnel carriers, and our weaponry. Aircraft in particular have been proven to be the most durable or our fighting machines, with the same ones in use for decades because of their extraordinarily high cost.

An extreme case in point is the high-flying B-52 bomber, which has been in active service for an incredible 50 years. To be sure, the B-52 has gone through some drastic changes and modifications over the years, and new up-to-date electronics systems have been installed. But it's still the old B-52, because our aerospace experts have yet to come up with something that's significantly better for that particular job or demonstrably more cost-effective.

1954 was the year that the first production models rolled out of the plant, followed later in the year by the first truly operational models. Over the years, some 744 of the birds were built, with the last B-52H models delivered in 1962. Today, the USAF has 102 of the grand-daddy bombers still in active service. They have been used in Viet Nam, the Gulf War and in the more recent Iraqi war. The aircraft continues to be a workhorse. With new engine designs slated for outfitting this year, its service life has been extended to the year 2025, while engineering studies show that it can be fully serviceable up to and beyond 2040. That's a service life of nearly 90 years for one aircraft design!

The B-52 probably represents the best-ever prudent use of federal defense budget funds. The big problem here is electronics. Our industry changes far more rapidly than even the latest fads or hit songs. Yesterday's gee-whiz product goes on today's pile of obsolete junk. The latest and greatest in the realm of military electronics can't change quite so rapidly. Aircraft like the B-52, as well as the F-15, 16, 18 and others, are based on old designs that frequently contain 20- or 30-year-old avionics and weapons systems. In many cases, these systems are still quite functional and deadly; they just need to be maintained properly. But the companies that made the ICs used in the original equipment have long since stopped production of those parts, and are making newer stuff instead.

So where does DoD go for spare parts? Fortunately, a highly specialized industry has grown up of companies calling themselves Aftermarket parts producers. These companies buy the rights and processes for discontinued semiconductors from those companies that have halted production. These companies provide a ready source for exact replacement parts at a modest price.

In his Page 1 story in this issue of U.S. Tech, R. Dale Lillard, president of Lansdale Semiconductor, a company in the forefront of this market, points out a serious problem with this program a problem promulgated by DoD itself where another company has been contracted by DoD to produce replacement parts in its GEM program parts that are not made by the original process but by using more up-to-date technology. The trouble is, the new-technology parts can cost over $1,000 each while the aftermarket company's parts average about $27 each. What's worse, the new process parts may be totally unreliable in combat situations, making losers out of everyone. The money has already been spent, but it may not be too late to head off disaster. It's important that DoD recognizes this problem now and stops this practice immediately. Continuing this policy will only wreck some of our costly combat aircraft and get their pilots and crew members killed. And this will definitely make it difficult to complete their mission, if they're on one when the failure occurs. Wake up, Washington! Stop turning our combat aircraft into flying coffins.

For more information, contact R. Dale Lillard, President:
Lansdale Semiconductor Inc.
2412 W. Huntington Dr.
Tempe, Az 85282
Telephone: 602-438-0123
Fax: 602-438-0138
Email: Lansdale@Lansdale.com
Home Page: http://www.lansdale.com

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