Asia Defense

Forget Drones – This Is the US Arms Export to Watch

A little-known material has the potential to revolutionize weapons technology.

Forget Drones – This Is the US Arms Export to Watch
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Writing for Breaking Defense, Sydney J. Freedberg, pointed out an underreported recent change in Washington’s arms export policy. Last week, the U.S. government authorized American defense contractor Raytheon to export a radar upgrade of its Patriot missile defense system to 22 countries. This new upgrade for the Patriot’s land-based radar contains a little-known material called gallium nitride (GaN), which according to Raytheon’s Vice President of Research and Development, John C. Zolper,  is a, “wide band gap semiconductor material with special properties that are ideal for applications in optoelectronics, and high-power, high-frequency amplifiers.”

Breaking Defense quotes defense consultant Loren Thompson, who underlines the importance of GaN: “The gallium nitride story is an under-reported and really revolutionary development. People are saying it’s the biggest invention in semi-conductors since silicon.”

The specific upgrades are two extra panels that give the radar increased range and a 360-degree field of view for little extra cost. Gallium nitride can carry higher voltages than other semiconductor materials, meaning higher efficiency, which in turn means less power is required for the operation of the radar. This, according to Patriot upgrade program director Norm Cantin, makes the radar system more reliable and cheaper to maintain in the long-run.

Jack Cartland, technical director for missile defense at Raytheon, noted the uphill battle his company had to fight with the government bureaucracy: “What we were asking for permission to export was pretty state of the art technology, and so getting export approval… took a little bit longer. The low observable/counter low observable tri-service committee [the committee which had to approve the export request] did not have [a] policy on what would be permitted in terms of these high-technology AESA [active electronically scanned] arrays [a type of phased array radar].”

Amidst the recent announcement that the United States will authorize for the first time the export of drones to allied nations, Loren Thompson argues that the media has missed the importance of the gallium nitride export authorization:“The policy on exporting armed drones is quite restrictive. It is only a loosening in the sense that previously there were no exports to anybody other than Britain. There are so many strings attached.”

He notes that the pecuniary benefits for the U.S. defense industry will be “unquestionably” bigger from the sale of gallium nitride than from lethal drone exports:  “Gallium nitride is an embedded technology in potentially a vast array of systems, whereas armed drones are really one relatively narrow product category.” Germany and Poland have both voiced interest in the purchase of the Patriot missile-defense system. The export authorization of gallium nitride may help Raytheon convince both countries to go for its military hardware.

Jack Cartland notes that “GaN is playing an integral role in developing more reliable military radars that can be five times more powerful than traditional systems or only half the size.” Of course, this claim is hard to independently verify. Loren Thompson emphasizes that the American defense contractor has spent a fair amount of time and money on the development of gallium nitride material: “Raytheon has spent a decade investing in gallium nitride. They’ve even built a foundry in Andover, Mass. to build their own chips.” This means that some of Raytheon’s claims may be overstated for marketing purposes.