What Are Military-Grade Electronics?

Posted: Mar 8 2019, 10:30am CST | by , in Technology News


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What Are Military-Grade Electronics?
Image: Karatec

You've heard the term "military grade" tossed around when it comes to electronics, but what does it actually mean?

The tongue-in-cheek phrase "good enough for government work" has always been disingenuous — but it's also flat-out inaccurate. When the expression was coined, engineers and contractors used it to describe work of excellent quality.

So, when it comes to electronic devices, "good enough for government" actually describes products of unimpeachable quality and ruggedness. Here's a quick look at what's required of electronics manufacturers for their wares to be considered military-grade.

A Look at Military-Caliber Electronic Components Standards

One of the reasons why the U.S. government imposes strict safeguards and standards on their suppliers is because many of those manufacturers also do business in the civilian sector, where counterfeit parts are a preoccupying worry. Given the risk of cross-contamination between the public and private sector supply chains, military standards became increasingly demanding in the 1900s.

In 2011, the U.S. government implemented the National Defense Act — a collection of initiatives holding Defense Department contractors and supply chain operators to increasingly high standards. This act consisted of several components, including the Supply Chain Hardware for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program, which was overseen by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

This SHIELD program imposed multiple new requirements on integrated circuit manufacturers who sell to the U.S. government. One of the most consequential will see the light of day in 2019. Here are its requirements:

  • Integrated circuit manufacturers supplying the government and armed forces must install a microscopic ID tag called a "dielet" in their electronics.
  • These ID tags will provide encrypted data about the origin and chain of custody of electronic components.
  • Dielets will even provide GPS data that can be checked against government and supplier databases to ensure authenticity.
All of this information can be accessed and decoded using a probe that connects with a standard smartphone.

This program seeks to curtail — or hopefully eliminate — worries that as much as 15 percent of the components supplied to the military may not be genuine.

However, the government has always held its suppliers to exacting standards — even before counterfeit goods became a global and mainstream concern.

How Else Does the Military Establish and Maintain High Standards?

Multiple "families" of requirements ensure electronic components meet high government standards. They concern even the smallest elements in circuits, logic boards and other critical products.

One group of standards describes how military-grade electronics must be tested before deployment:

  • MIL-PRF-19500, MIL-STD-750-2
  • Microcircuits: MIL-STD-883
  • Other standard electronic components: MIL-STD-202G

Another group describes the real-world performance benchmarks these components must maintain in the field:

  • Integrated and microcircuits: MIL-PRF-38535, MIL-PRF-38534
  • Chips, resistors and capacitors: MIL-PRF-55342, MIL-PRF-55681 and MIL-PRF-123

But what do these standards actually mean? What do they measure? As an example, AS9100 provides procedural and design guidance for products destined for defense, aviation and space applications — including the following requirements:

  • Suppliers must design and implement a quality management system (QMS).
  • Materials used in circuit boards must meet or exceed standards for temperature resistance and electrical breakdown thresholds.
  • Companies must have measures in place to vet their suppliers and verify components' authenticity.
  • Employees must receive adequate training on material handling and product design.

What does a military-grade electronic device or gadget looks like in the real world — and are they available for sale? The answer to the latter question is yes. So what should a civilian expect, performance-wise, from a product like a laptop billed as military-grade? Is it worth the purchase price? Are there any tradeoffs?

Looking for Military-Grade on the Civilian Market

We've looked at some of the standards governing interior electronic components such as logic boards, PCBs and electrical circuits. A host of requirements guide the design of the more visible parts of the product, too.

One example is MIL-STD-810G — a standard for testing the overall ruggedness of electronics destined for the military. "Ruggedness" and "toughness" cover product qualities like the ability to operate in sweltering, dry, dusty or moist conditions — as well as the ability to withstand harsh impacts and drops. Some civilian laptop models from HP, Panasonic, Dell and others meet these standards for toughness.

You wouldn't necessarily pick a military-grade printed circuit board (PCB) out of a lineup. But military-grade electronic devices often sport a chunky, bulky design — owing to their extreme shock protection — as well as high carry weights. A military-grade laptop could weigh seven pounds or more.

That's a lot for a web designer to carry around. But the extra weight is often thanks to larger, longer-lasting batteries and thick rubber housings. In fairness, these devices aren't really intended for desk diving — more realistic applications beyond the military include industrial research, construction sites and mining operations.

Sleekness and affordability (some rugged and military-grade laptops cost multiple thousands of dollars each) take a back seat here. But this grade of electronic gadget gives back in other ways. Most are configurable with late-model processors for high-power computing, and the batteries are user-replaceable and sometimes even hot-swappable, meaning you can switch out batteries without shutting down.

Military-Grade Tech in the Private Sector

Military-grade electronics abide by strict sourcing, quality control, design, testing, durability and performance requirements. Civilians who do their computing in extreme conditions — or who just want to buy fewer devices throughout their lives — will find a lot to like about military-grade tablets, laptops and phones.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/56" rel="author">Scott Huntington</a>
Scott Huntington is a writer and journalist from Harrisburg PA who covered movies, tech, cars, and more. Check out his blog Off The Throttle or follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington.




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