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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pentagon Sails on the Trailing Edge of Technology

NEW YORK -- Although satellite-guided missiles, the B-2 stealth bomber and the pilotless Global Hawk surveillance plane being deployed in Iraq are flagships of modern weaponry, nothing in the military is quite as up to date as it looks.

In fact, most equipment used in the war includes components designed before many of the troops using them were born. Often, the designs and production processes used to make the components are so outdated and expensive that the private sector has long since lost interest in supporting them.

Out of necessity, government offices like the Defense Department's Defense Logistics Agency, the Defense Microelectronics Activity and a handful of private contractors have become some the world's most sophisticated managers of obsolescence.

"Unlike a commercial business, we don't have an option to say we don't carry that part any more," said John Christensen, chief of the industrial capabilities division of the Defense Logistics Agency. "We have to develop a source."

Technology is advancing so fast that the Pentagon has to develop plans for getting obsolete parts before it finishes developing the weapons in which they are used.

Lockheed-Martin, for example, delivered the first F/A-22 fighters this year, yet the basic electronics rely on power-hungry processors designed more than a decade earlier using standards abandoned long ago by the leading chip makers. Christensen said the fighter's program managers had estimated that it would cost $1 billion to redesign the plane, which is nicknamed Raptor, to remove the obsolete technology.

The war in Iraq could draw more attention to the range of tactics the Defense Department has developed to deal with obsolescence, a problem that also affects a growing number of commercial businesses. The discipline of military obsolescence management has been given a typically mysterious military name -- D.M.S.M.S., for Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages.

And potential civilian applications of these tactics have been picked up by organizations like the Component Obsolescence Group, which has 160 members, including aerospace companies, railroads and operators of nuclear power plants.

"The real issue is figuring out the cost picture of the different alternatives," said Tim Szczerbinski, an engineer with the Mitre Corporation who runs global air traffic operations for the Air Force at Hanscom Field northwest of Boston.

The alternatives include buying enough components to meet future repair needs along with the initial purchase, signing contracts that guarantee the manufacturer will keep making the components for a specific period and finding specialty manufacturers to take over production when the original company quits.

Managing obsolescence is so substantial a challenge that a niche of the software industry has grown up to cater to it. Companies like i2 and Manufacturing Technology have developed software packages that can help engineers predict when replacement parts will be needed and whether they will be readily available in the future.

The rapid pace of change in electronics is the biggest challenge for both the Pentagon and private companies. Processors have doubled in computing capacity every 18 months to two years, and complete redesigns, like Intel's introduction of Pentium chips, occur perhaps once a decade.

But major weapons systems and space programs like the space shuttle and the International Space Station, as well as large civilian projects like power plants, can spend more than a decade in development. And once built, they are often kept in service far longer than originally projected. The latest plans for the B-52, which was first flown in 1952, delay its retirement until 2040.

Obsolete electronics have become a highly fragmented, multibillion-dollar business, said Curt Gerrish, founder and chief executive of Rochester Electronics, a leading supplier and maker of such components.

But electronics are just the most obvious part of the problem. The Joint Stars planes, which play a big role in communications, surveillance and targeting in Iraq, are rebuilt Boeing 707's, a plane that American commercial airlines removed from their fleets long ago. Replacing anything, from wire harnesses to hatches, can be costly.

As the electronics revolution accelerates, civilian businesses are also running into obsolescence issues. Telecommunications equipment, medical devices and office products like copiers can all be rendered useless long before they wear out.

No business, though, faces the obsolescence problem as often or across as great a range of crucial equipment as does the military. Because placing new technology into old designs often involves huge outlays, weapons system managers usually look first to continue using obsolete parts.

The first stops in any military search for orphaned parts are the stockpiles maintained by the Defense Department at sites like the Defense Supply Center in Columbus, Ohio, or by private distributors.

Old computer chips may be available from companies like Landsdale Semiconductor, Austin Semiconductor and Rochester Electronics, which acquired the manufacturing equipment and specifications for processor or memory chips that have been discontinued by companies like Motorola, Micron Technologies and Intel. Rochester, based in Newburyport, Massachusetts, calls itself "the leader on the trailing edge of technology." It has more than 3 billion chips on wafers, 50 million others that have been packaged and tested so they are ready to be shipped, and the tools to make 15,000 different discontinued components from 35 manufacturers.

But many components are so hard to make, or in such little demand, that the Defense Department has to pay for customized design and production of replacement parts. When microchips are needed, it often turns to the Sarnoff Corporation, a subsidiary of SRI International. Sarnoff runs the government-financed chip production program called Generalized Emulation of Microcircuits.

Such replacement components are designed not only to emulate the form and function of those being replaced but also, if possible, to include new technology that will make future updating much easier.

As expensive as such work can be, it is still cheaper in many cases than simply buying all the components that may ever be needed before the original production line shuts down. So-called life-of-type procurement rarely anticipates future needs accurately but can often saddle the military with expensive, wasted stockpiles, according to Szczerbinski of Mitre.

"It's like asking how many tomatoes you are going to eat in the rest of your life," he said.