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An Assessment of Precision Time and Time Interval Science and Technology
Finding: Internationally, the United States is an important player in PTTI research but no longer the dominant one.
Increased foreign participation in major PTTI conferences attests to the fact that the United States has more competition in PTTI research than was true historically. Countries such as Australia, China, Finland, France, Germany, and Russia all train students specifically in PTTI technology.
Recommendation: While it is important to retain U.S. leadership in PTTI, ONR and USNO should consider whether opportunities exist to take advantage of growing foreign competence in PTTI by cooperating with allies. This might defray the cost of some current programs, freeing resources to pursue advances in other areas of PTTI.
Finding: Training in precision frequency control and timing per se is rare in the United States, and training in the fields relevant to PTTI is mixed—some is adequate, some is not.
U.S. researchers in atomic frequency standards and clocks are generally drawn from the ranks of students trained in atomic physics and precision measurements. Years of on-the-job training then turn these researchers into PTTI experts. A number of U.S. universities provide training in atomic physics and precision measurements relevant to PTTI, and a number of federal laboratories support training opportunities that focus on development of advanced atomic clocks and frequency standards.
In particular, however, there is a dearth of U.S. training opportunities in areas relevant to high-precision quartz resonators and oscillators, which play a key role in most applications that utilize PTTI in the field. There are a number of areas for potential improvements in the performance of these oscillators that would translate directly into improved systems for the warrior. Without trained researchers in this area, the United States risks losing out on such improved systems.
Finding: There is little incentive for commercial firms to produce PTTI devices for defense systems.
A large market exists for inexpensive quartz crystal oscillators for applications such as watches, cell phones, and other relatively low-precision consumer goods. The market for defense-quality quartz oscillators is miniscule in comparison with this lower-quality market. The situation is similar for atomic clocks, where the largest market for moderate-quality clocks is commercial telecommunications. Relative to this market, the purchase of high-precision clocks for defense systems is infrequent and involves a small number of clocks.
Most defense applications also require oscillators and clocks that can withstand the harsh operating environments of the battlefield and space. Such environmental factors pose severe engineering challenges for device designers. Products for the consumer market or for the telecommunications industry are not made to operate in these environments, so commercial firms that manufacture for civilian applications cannot readily shift into production of devices for defense purposes.
Industry needs a steady source of funding in order to maintain precision frequency sources for special applications, such as space-qualified, severe environments and very small size and power requirements. In particular, without sustained support, precision quartz oscillators may no longer be available from U.S. sources.