On Tuesday, the Navy issued a solicitation that could end up driving consolidation of the military-electronics business in the years ahead.
The service released a request for proposals as it begins the "technology development" phase of its next-generation jammer program, an effort that will eventually be worth more than $10 billion.
All of the major players in the arcane world of electronic warfare -- BAE Systems PLC (IW 1000/123), ITT Exelis, Northrop Grumman (IW 500/46) and Raytheon Co. (IW 500/49) -- will bid, and whoever prevails will dominate that segment of the defense market for decades to come.
The smart money says this competition is mainly between BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman, since they have the longest experience and biggest market shares in electronic countermeasures.
Raytheon has a hand in so many other facets of military electronics that it doesn't have to win the jammer program to thrive, whereas Exelis is a smaller player in a market segment overcrowded with world-class behemoths.
However, the military enterprise has changed markedly since the existing ALQ-99 jammer first debuted in the 1970s, and the rules governing Pentagon solicitations often result in unexpected outcomes. So anyone could win.
Revolutionary Solution Needed
The Navy's goals for the new jammer are so ambitious that the winning company will have to offer a revolutionary solution.
Among other things, the service wants a tenfold increase in the number of emitters that can be jammed simultaneously, a huge boost in the radiated power of the jammer to increase its effective range, greatly increased steering agility in the jammer's antennas, broader spectrum coverage, increased reliability, reduced weight -- and oh yes, an affordable price.
These requirements are driven mainly by the proliferation of new sensors and communication devices that must be disrupted or deceived in wartime, from the cell phones that often trigger improvised explosives to the dual-mode radars guiding surface-to-air missiles.
There are literally hundreds of technological options for designing the next-generation Jammer. For instance, one way of reducing weight might be to adapt the concept of software-reconfigurable waveforms pioneered by the joint-tactical radio system program for use in jamming.
Software-reconfigurability substitutes sophisticated computer code for hardware in shifting among various functions, and thus allows designers to shrink the size and weight of systems.
But as the companies chasing the jammer contract all have learned in their tactical communications work, the complexity associated with engineering code for new waveforms is multiplicative rather than additive, so it may not be the low-cost solution -- at least during the development phase of the jammer program.
Embarrassment of Riches
The United States is the only country in the world where several companies exist that could successfully develop a jammer to the Navy's specifications.
That's a good thing, because agile, imaginative electronic warfare confers a huge operational advantage on our joint force.
However, with Pentagon spending on countermeasures and communications projected to decline in the future, it isn't likely that all the players in the business can sustain current profits.
If Exelis lost the competition, for example, that could have a significant impact on management's willingness to be bought rather than be an acquirer in any sector consolidation.
If it wins, on the other hand, it could end up being the dominant player in electronic warfare through mid-century. So the stakes are high.
Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., is chief operating officer of the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit Lexington Institute and chief executive officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was deputy director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He also has taught at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.