Defense Speak Interpreted: The ‘Trouble’ With Obsolescence

How could a simple word like obsolescence stir up so much trouble within the Defense Department? The dictionary defines obsolescence as the process of becoming obsolete or the condition of being nearly obsolete.

Within Defense, there are two distinct reasons for obsolescence:

  1. Newer technology has replaced the part, assembly, system, or the weapon with something far more advanced. It is judged that replacement would be far better. Frequently a cost/benefit analysis is used to make this decision.
  2. The factors of Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Materials Shortages (DMSMS) comes in to play. That is, it is just no longer possible to get replacement parts or assemblies for a fully functioning weapon system for a variety of reasons.  

Let’s discuss those in reverse order, just to emphasize the problems for Defense Department. In fact, Defense has a 191-page guidebook for managing DMSMS, called the SD-221.     

Page 120 of SD-22 states:

Obsolescence is not synonymous with DMSMS. Instead, it is less definitive and is situationally dependent in that an item can be obsolete from one perspective, but not from another. In the context of DMSMS management, an item is obsolete if it is out-of-date and superseded by something new. Below are key underlying causes of an item being out-of-date:

  • Technology
  • Function
  • Regulation
  • Supportability
  • Market Demand

However, obsolescence and DMSMS overlap to a great extent. SD-22 is full of examples where there is overlap and a few cases where they are exclusive. Let’s look at these from the Defense systems’ perspective, rather than from circuit board technology, which we will discuss later.  

  • Technology: The way the U.S. has fought wars has evolved. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Defense planned for “great power conflicts”; that is, among a very few nations with huge militaries. Then, “asymmetric warfare” was the target with small bands of guerilla fighters causing the most damage to enemies. Small jeeps and trucks were subject to roadside bombs, so mine-resistant vehicles replaced jeeps. Now, manned vehicles may be overtaken by robot controlled unmanned vehicles
  • Function: Artillery has been the heavy firepower weapon since the Middle Ages. Now, artillery puts soldiers too close to the enemy, and missiles and bombs threaten to replace artillery.
  • Regulation: Chemical weapons were used in World War I. However, treaties after that conflict outlawed their use in future conflicts. Granted, some rogue states have developed and tried these “weapons of mass destruction,” but that has caused international alarm and was a listed cause of the second war in Iraq.   
  • Supportability: This entails many materiel aspects—ammunition, spare parts, required facilities, trained personnel, etc. There are many cost/benefit relationships that must be explored before a switch is made to newer weapons systems. The U.S. Marines have recently decided that they will abandon tanks and replace that firepower with missiles and smaller infantry carrying vehicles. Landing tanks, spare parts, fuel, and trained personnel are all factors in the Marine decision.
  • Market demand: While it is hard to think of weapons systems going to “a market.” it is possible to look at this aspect of product management. The demand for diesel/electric submarines has dropped off and replaced by nuclear subs. The recent Australian cancellation of a diesel electric program with France and the order of nuclear subs from Great Britain and the United States caused international friction in the last month.   

Now, let us look at a technology-based obsolescence closer to home: the bare board and board assembly level. Most of the commercial electronics world started to change to Pb-free constructions with the advent of Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) starting around 2006. This triggered a change in solders, assembly temperatures, component surface finishes, higher temperature laminates, and complete separation of assembly lines as Pb-containing or Pb-free. The mixing of Pb-free component and board finishes with Pb-containing solder, or vice versa, has been shown to produce inconsistent solder joint performance. And, there is one thing demanded of Defense electronics: consistent performance.  

At the time of RoHS implementation, most commercial electronics switched to solders based on tin/silver/copper compositions; the SAC solders are based on the first letter of their chemical designation – Sn/Ag/Cu. This family provided a narrow melting temperature, relatively low cost, and performance that met moderate swings in operating temperatures, say 0 to 100°C. However, Defense electronics must perform over a wider range, typically -55 to 125°C. Over this range, eutectic SnPb solder shows better elasticity and hence fatigue life. My own summary in plain words is that Pb-free solder is stronger and more brittle while SnPb is more elastic, but weaker. So, Defense electronics pretty much stayed with SnPb solder for the last 15 years.   

Now, how does obsolesce enter the picture? There are many factors, including:

  • Defense takes only 1-2% of the circuit components, particularly the most advanced chips for such technologies as artificial intelligence, 5G, augmented reality, and self-guided vehicles  
  • With this low demand for Pb containing attachment (solder balls for BGAs), semiconductor suppliers are no longer supplying Pb-containing solder ball BGAs 
  • Defense suppliers must have the standard commercial chips sent to service centers where Pb-free balls are removed and Pb-containing balls attached—called re-balling. This costs money and lengthens the delivery time, exacerbating the already long semiconductor lead times
  • Solder suppliers have worked to develop newer solder alloys to overcome Pb-free solder brittleness with thermal cycling, better resistance to shock and vibration, and driving melt temperature down toward eutectic solder temperatures  

That all gets us back to the dictionary definition I started with: Obsolescence is when newer technology has replaced the part, assembly, system, or the weapon with something far more advanced. It is judged that replacement would be far better. Frequently, a cost/benefit analysis is used to make this decision.   

Many Defense contractors are now doing the cost analysis of whether to engineer their newest electronics systems as Pb-free with some electronics packaging design work to properly place components, use underfills or board stiffeners for vibration or shock, and now switch manufacturing lines to all Pb-free pastes. Those efforts will eliminate the re-balling costs with the added lead time and assure there is no redesign or re-qualification for future builds as more and more components are only supplied Pb-free.  

Sadly, there is no free lunch in Defense electronics manufacture. However, many program managers, defense primes, and assembly houses are looking at the obsolescence issues with Pb-containing solder and making the choice to go Pb-free now, rather than wait for an uncertain future supply chain.  


  1. Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages, Defense Standardization Program Office, January 2016.

Dennis Fritz was a 20-year direct employee of MacDermid Inc. and is retired after 12 years as a senior engineer at (SAIC) supporting the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. He was elected to the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012.



Defense Speak Interpreted: The ‘Trouble’ With Obsolescence


How could a simple word like obsolescence stir up so much trouble within the Defense Department? Obsolescence is defined as the process of becoming obsolete or the condition of being nearly obsolete. Dennis Fritz explains its connection to Defense.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: What Does Convergence Mean to Defense?


How can a simple term like “convergence” be confusing, even at the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army? Webster’s dictionary defines convergence as “1. The act of converging and especially moving toward union or uniformity,” and “4. The merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole.”

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Decoding the Military’s COCOM


Have you ever followed Defense activities around the world and been confused by terms like CENTCOM or SOUTHCOM? Who’s in charge of worldwide Defense activities—just “a big guy at the top” or regional commanders? How do Army, Navy, and Air Force stay coordinated around the world in various geographies?

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: POM—Explaining the Process for Defense Budgeting


Anyone hanging around Defense programs will have surely heard of the term “POM.” Most of the connotations I have heard say that if you have a POM or will get “POM’d,” your program is “skating on solid ice.” That led me to infer that if you were in the POM, your program was established. But why and how?

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: The U.S. Has a Space Force—JEDI Knights Next?


Does the U.S. Department of Defense's JEDI contract mean it's going into a Star Wars production? Sorry, no Stephen Spielberg this time. Sorting out the good guys and bad guys in this cloud computing scenario.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Defense on Legacy Weapons Systems


As “Defense Speak Interpreted” readers have surmised, the weapons systems of yesterday, today, and tomorrow are under review, both with President Biden and with the Congress now in control by Democrats. But “weapons systems of yesterday”? In the fast-paced consumer electronics world, “legacy” never comes up.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Industrial Base Evaluation


So, what is an “industrial base” to the Defense Department? And wouldn’t we expect a “battle plan” from Defense, not an “industrial strategy”? We want to review the Defense Industrial Strategy in the January, 2021 Report to Congress from the Acquisition and Sustainment section of the Department of Defense.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: So, What’s a JADC2?


The term JADC2 was prevalent in the late 2020 debate about the National Defense Authorization Act. It is a new way defense is using electronics to shape battle strategy. JADC2 is Defense Speak for “Joint All Domain Command and Control.” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it, but what does that mean?

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Your Best Friend is a Skyborg?


Suddenly the term “Skyborg” is popping up in Air Force publications, and if you are an Air Force pilot, your future best friend may be a Skyborg. To understand the concept behind the term Skyborg, we need a bit of weapons strategy for the Air Force.

View Story


Defense Speak Interpreted: What’s a VITA?


Ever wonder how military electronics users could swap out circuit cards rapidly and keep their defense systems running? What about a “hot swap” of a circuit card that was questionable? How would defense depots keep enough unique circuit cards on hand to maintain the various systems in times of heavy use? The Department of Defense started to worry about those issues over 30 years ago and has helped private industry develop a highly sophisticated set of standards for circuit card input/output (I/O) to make quick change possible.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Intel Is Now Making a ‘SHIP’


Perhaps you recently saw that Intel was awarded a contract for a SHIP by the U.S. Department of Defense. However, this one will not float on the water since SHIP stands for state-of-the-art heterogeneous integration prototype. Denny Fritz explains.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Rad-Hard Electronics


Have you ever seen electronics described as “rad-hard,” or radiation-hardened, and wondered what that meant and how that was done? Did you like me just assume that “rad-hard” and “expensive” were synonymous? Did you think that this was a Defense Department term since they deal with nuclear weapons? Denny Fritz explores this and more.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: The Defense Innovation Unit


Many of Denny Fritz's columns are about new defense technologies and innovations, but what about an organization with “innovation” in its name? Here, he describes the history and purpose of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), as well as some of its programs.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Unpacking the NDAA


What is this NDAA stuff you keep hearing on the national news all the time, and why is it important to PCBs? Denny Fritz explains what is going on with the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes programs and lays out the priorities and policies for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: DMEA


A June 17 article announced a supply chain award of $10.7 billion to eight defense companies for semiconductors. Dennis Fritz explains how the Defense Microelectronics Agency (DMEA) administers this contract and keeps the technology secure.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: C4ISR


Only the U.S. Defense Department would lump together seven concepts—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—into a single acronym: C4ISR. Denny Fritz explains how C4ISR has been called the “nervous system” of the military.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: What’s an RCV, and What Do Electronics Have to Do With It?


In "Defense Speak," RCV does not stand for ranked-choice voting, a remote control vehicle, a riot control vehicle, or a refuse collection vehicle, although the second one is close; it stands for a remote combat vehicle. Denny Fritz explores this concept and its defense applications.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Why Is Defense Hyper Over Hypersonics?


Perhaps you have noticed that the term “hypersonics” is now a buzz phrase in a big part of the Department of Defense research effort. What does hypersonic mean, and why is so much work needed in this weapons field? Dennis Fritz explains.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Be Prepared for CMMC


If you are a current or future Defense Department contractor or subcontractor, you need to be prepared for the next cybersecurity requirements coming online during 2020. This is the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification, or CMMC, in Defense speak. Dennis Fritz explains how there will be five levels of cybersecurity requirements for various amounts of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) you handle, with increasing requirements from one (least) to five (most).

View Story


Defense Speak Interpreted: The Continuing Resolution


The topic of the continuing resolution (CR) has been sneaking past other hot Washington topics, such as impeachment, candidate debates, and why the Redskins are so bad. Dennis Fritz provides an update concerning a CR and the 2020 fiscal year.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Executive Agent


After reading my previous column, you may have realized that electronics packaging technology development came from the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. One of its core responsibilities is the assignment of “executive agent” for PCBs and electronic interconnects. But what is this “executive agent” thing, frequently shortened to EA? Dennis Fritz explains.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: PCB-related OTAs from NAVSEA Crane


In my previous column, I described how Other Transaction Authority (OTA) projects were speeding up the development of new technology for the Defense Department. Much of this improvement has to do with the speed of contracting and the less restrictive selection and payment process involved. Specifically, I would like to call out projects under the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL).

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Other Transaction Authority


DIU grants contracts under a joint OTA and a parallel process called commercial solutions opening. Most of the five DIU focus areas depend on electronics: artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, cyber, human systems, and space. At the end of 2018, DIU had funded 104 contracts with a total value of $354 million and brought in 87 non-traditional DoD vendors, including 43 contracting with DoD for the first time.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: DARPA ERI


DARPA ERI stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Electronics Resurgence Initiative. This tongue-twisting acronym is the latest Department of Defense (DoD) effort to catch up and surpass world semiconductor technology for the secure IC chips needed by advanced defense electronics systems.

View Story


Defense Speak Interpreted: PERM—Pb-free Electronics Risk Management


In this column, we explore PERM—the Pb-free Electronics Risk Management Consortium. No, the group members do not all have curly hair! The name was chosen around 2008 by a group of engineers from aerospace, defense, and harsh environment (ADHE) organizations.

View Story

Defense Speak Interpreted: Defense Electronic Supply Chain Issues


On October 5, 2018, the Department of Defense (DoD) highlighted issues with the release of the 146-page report “Assessing and Strengthening the Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency of the United States” from President Donald J. Trump

View Story
Copyright © 2021 I-Connect007. All rights reserved.