War is going on over special integrated circuits based on a material called Gallium Nitride. Winning this war will effect not only the United States national security, but also its ability to protect key global partners in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Unfortunately the battle for Gallium Gallium Nitride is very complicated, because the material has extensive commercial as well as military application.
But perhaps the single most important use for Gallium Nitrdte is for detecting stealth aircraft and defeating long range weapons including so-called Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles launched from aircraft.
The United States is totally committed to stealth as the game changing technology of the present and future. So deeply is the United States committed, that the only air superiority multi-mission aircraft being produced today is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF is hugely costly and less stealthy than its big brother the F-22, but the F-22 was sacrificed so the JSF program could be financed, so mostly everything going forward hangs on this single airplane.
Stealth is a technology that effectively hides the radar signature of an aircraft, UAV or missile. When a radar sends out a beam and scans the horizon, it is looking for an object to return a signal back to the radar. Today radars are increasingly smart and the most advanced type are called AESA, for Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. Instead of moving parts, AESA radars move their beam based on computer logic, not mechanics; and because of the special transmit and receive elements these radars can simultaneously track many targets.
Today’s stealth technology optimizes an aircraft, UAV or missile to make it hard to detect by radar, even sophisticated AESA. Most air defense radars, include those on airplanes, are primarily operating on what is called X band. These are radars that operate in the 8 to 12 gigahertz frequency range. Stealthy aircraft are engineered to deflect radar interrogations in this frequency range.
There are other means to detect stealthy platforms including VHF and radars in different frequencies, particularly L Band. L Band is still missing some technology to make it a good performer against stealth platforms. Perhaps most importantly, L Band transceivers need more power and more cooling to do their job, making it tricky to get them squeezed into an aircraft.
But the Russians are squeezing them in, building L Band detectors into the wings of its latest aircraft, particularly the still-developmental Sukhoi PAK T-50, which is planned to be about as stealthy as the JSF. The L Band radar is in the leading edge of the fighter’s wing. It is an AESA radar that is under development by Tikhomirov NIIP, Russia’s leading radar house located about twenty five miles from Moscow. If the Russians are successful there are potentially dramatic consequences: their newest fighters will be able to detect US stealth aircraft (F-22, F-35), jam their weapons and their radar, and close in for a kill. In short, the Russians could have the potential to blow out the US stealth program. The secret sauce the Russians need to get there are a new generation of Transmit and Receive modules based on Gallium Nitride technology. op US defense contractors, including Raytheon and Northrop, are deeply involved in Gallium Nitride, as are companies such as Selex in Europe. So, too, are developers elsewhere working the same problem, especially China.
China and Russia, while not always comfortable in sharing technology, cooperate. It is a major concern in Washington where a special committee in the Pentagon, known as the Low Observable–Counter Low Observable Committee that monitors stealth and applications that use this technology such as night vision, electro-optical sensors and radars. The Lo-Clo committee is a Tri-Service agency. It recently is said to have intervened to help block the sale to China of a Germany-based company that builds sophisticated coating technology equipment enabling Gallium Nitride military applications.
But this is not nearly the only concern. The spread of Gallium Nitride technology is already mostly out of control, because products based on this technology are revolutionary. Gallium Nitride’s main benefit is that transistors and devices made with this material can carry out very rapid switching, at very high power while generating very little heat. Silicon based devices, on the contrary, generate a lot of heat and cannot handle high power without cooling systems. And silicon based devices cannot switch at the speed of Gallium Nitride transistors. Where silicon can work in gigahertz, Gallium Nitride can work in terahertz. This has a huge impact in imaging, sensing and communications, even the ability to rapidly detect explosives or scan persons at airports (in high resolution). Applied to huge data centers such as those run by Microsoft and Google, that eat up 2% of America’s electrical power, this new technology could cut power use dramatically. It is a transformative technology also for electric cars, making them viable without having to keep pushing the envelope on batteries. New types of electric motors and far better power inverters could change the automotive landscape in the next twenty years. The intersection of commercial and military technology is quite obvious, and the ability to separate them (if such an ability exists at all) is completely unchartered. Thus the Pentagon effort to try and knock off a Chinese purchase of a sensitive company that manufactures enabling technology for Gallium Nitride fabrication, is a small step and, perhaps an inadequate one in taming this new beast. In the real world it may be that much of the technology is already lost
* This article has been posted on Bryen’s Blog on November 21, 2016.