By Stephen Bryen***
There is a war going on over special integrated circuits based on a material called Gallium Nitride. The outcome of the war has dramatic consequences for US national security, and for the ability of the United States to protect key global partners in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Unfortunately the battle for Gallium Nitride is very complicated, because the material has extensive commercial as well as military applications.
But perhaps the single most important use for Gallium Nitride 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. Top 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.
L Band Radar in the leading edge wing root of the PAK T-50
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.
Some of the “plumbing” of Google’s massive data center
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.
Consider the case, exposed by the Financial Times, of a young engineer named Shane Todd. Todd worked for IME in Singapore. Located in Singapore’s Science Part #2, the Institute of Micro Electronics is a state technology development organization that “aims to enhance the value-add of the microelectronics industry in Singapore by undertaking core R&D in microelectronics, supporting the R&D needs in the industry and developing skilled R&D personnel.” Todd was working on a project to develop a Gallium Nitride based amplifier device “able to withstand extreme heat and power levels.” The IME partner for this project was Huawei.
Huawei is a sensitive subject in the US intelligence community. “U.S. lawmakers and regulators have blocked Huawei from three proposed acquisitions and many more partnerships over the past decade.” While Huawei is a big mobile phone provider, the company also manufactures and sells advanced switching equipment and microwave devices. US intelligence also believes it feeds intercepted information to the Chinese military and supports the Chinese military with advanced electronics.
Shane Todd was concerned about the work he was doing with IME and Huawei, and the interference he was running with a US Gallium Nitride technology company, sensing that he was violating US national security rules. This, the FT reported,he told his parents who were speaking with Todd over a Skype connection from Singapore. Skype is, as many know, far from secure.
Todd also told his parents that he had secured a new job in the United States and was leaving IME. But, in June 2012 (date uncertain) Todd was found dead in his apartment in Singapore. Wikipedia says his death was under “disputed circumstances.” The belated Singapore investigation said that it was a suicide; the parents question that assessment. The US Embassy in Singapore proposed bringing the FBI into the police investigation; the request was refused.
Dr. Shane Todd in Singapore
The matter of Dr. Shane Todd’s death, and the possible linkages to American companies may still be an open matter as far as the US government is concerned. But the fact that the story is connected to Gallium Nitride and its extreme national security importance, is what makes the story compelling and, at least in the eyes of his family, unresolved.
One of the tasks of the incoming Trump administration should be reviewing the protection of American technology, especially Gallium Nitride. We don’t know how much vital information has already gone out of US control, nor do we know how much of the manufacturing equipment has proliferated abroad. Worse yet, given the sloppiness overall of weakly enforced US export controls and the lack of cooperation from Silicon Valley on national security issues means the US may soon face a Gallium Nitride revolution from China. China may preside over the next Gallium Valley. If that happens, as seems to be increasingly likely, the US could lose more than a critical industry; it could face substantial national security risks.
*** Dr. Stephen Bryen was the founder and first Director of the Defense Technology Security Administration