Commercial Ethernet Switches vs. Military Ethernet Switches Discussed

Over the years, Ethernet switches have become a standard in commercial and industrial applications. They are used to integrate different communication channels within the facility or organization for information centralization and management. Although they work with the same concept of transmitting Ethernet frames between the devices that are connected to them, they largely differ in their construction, design, and implementation. First, the industrial switches have a ruggedized construction and they are designed in adherence to industry standards. Today, their utility is proven in various industries in military and defense. The military Ethernet switches, in comparison to commercial switches, assure reliable, safe, and consistent communication in challenging environments. This paper analyzes the differences between military ruggedized Ethernet switches and commercial Ethernet switches. It also focuses on the applications of military ruggedized Ethernet switches and their adherence to MIL standards. 

Commercial Ethernet Switches and Military Ethernet Switches

Difference Between Commercial Ethernet Switches and Industrial Military Ethernet Switches Analyzed

Regular commercial Ethernet switches differ from ruggedized military Ethernet switches in terms of design, manufacturing, testing, and implementation. The following pointers will help you understand these differences.

  • Ruggedized Construction and Component Protection: MIL-STD Ethernet switches like other industrial Ethernet switches possess ruggedized construction. These switches are designed to endure harsh mechanical factors such as extreme temperatures, electromagnetic interference, corrosion, fluid contamination, and ingress. Against this, RJ-45 commercial Ethernet switches are designed for standard environments and possess standard construction. Ruggedized construction means these switches and their MIL-STD components are included inside ruggedized housing. This housing is manufactured and sealed such that it remains unaffected from any of the aforementioned factors. For military switches designed for marine applications, the housing must meet the IP68 immersion rating. The IP68 compliant ruggedized housing can be found in underwater vehicles that remain submerged in water for long periods.
    All MIL-STD components used in MIL-STD switches are tested to MIL-STD 810 specifications to handle rigorous environmental conditions. Most of these switches are also tested to MIL-STD 461 that helps ensure that they withstand electromagnetic interference (EMI/RF). The use of the right cables is also recommended whether in commercial or military environments. Like military Ethernet switches, cables also need to meet MICE standards, where M stands for Mechanical (Flex, Vibration), I for Ingress (Moisture), C for Climatic (Temperature), and E for Electromagnetic (Noise). This protocol is common to most other industrial Ethernet protocols such as EtherCAT, EtherNet/IP, ProfiNET, Modbus-TCP, and so on.
  • Topologies: Most commercial Ethernet switches are configured using star topology, whereas different industrial switches use star, bus, and ring topologies. In most industrial applications multiple nodes share a link, where bus topologies effectively work. The topology is also referred to as multi-segment or multi-drop topology. There is a slight difference when it comes to military Ethernet switches. They use a full mesh topology, where a direct link is established between all node pairs. For instance, on a fully connected network with x nodes, there would be x(x-1)/2 direct links. Full mesh topology is mainly used by military networks because it requires intricate set up, expertise, time, and money, which makes it difficult for most industrial facilities. The network assures extreme reliability, as demanded by military applications.
  • Cooling: Most electronic devices whether used in commercial or industrial environments fail due to heating. The applications using commercial Ethernet switches and routers are cooled using fans, which may suffice their requirements. However, these fans may not withstand harsh environments in military environments. The MIL-STD components are designed to produce minimal heat when in operation and the housing is created such that it absorbs cool air from atmosphere and minimizes the heat buildup in the device. Often, the housings of the Ethernet switches or other components are designed keeping the application environment of the device in mind. Cooling plates are also included in some switches to amplify their heat transfer capabilities.
  • Size, Weight, and Power (SWaP) Constraints: Although the size, weight, and power constraints are common to both these switches, they are more complex for military Ethernet switches. Earlier military switches were large, heavy and inflexible, which added to the overall weight and power usage, thereby reducing their operability in military applications. Nowadays, Ethernet switches feature compact-sized construction and are largely chosen for their speed, lightweight construction, and reliability. These switches also help establish interoperability between different Ethernet devices on the platform. Against commercial Ethernet switches, military Ethernet switches support large distance transmissions.
  • Power Requirements:  Unstable power supplies are one of the common challenges of most mobile military devices. Regular commercial Ethernet switches cannot withstand these challenges and their intricate circuitry may get damaged when exposed to electricity spikes, vibrations, and shocks induced by unstable power supplies or other factors. This is where military switches stand out. They can support a broad range of inputs and are protected against spikes, ripples, shocks, and vibrations.

Applications That Use Military Ethernet Switches

Ruggedized switches are used in various military applications. The following are a few prominent ones.

  • Unmanned Vehicles: Unmanned vehicles are gaining popularity in military applications. Unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles are widely used for search, exploration, and various military operations. These autonomous vehicles are equipped with advanced technologies and designed to operate in harsh environments while enabling multiple communications. Both managed and unmanaged types of Ethernet switches are used in these applications.
  • Ground Vehicles: Armored vehicles led by experienced military personnel have been a regular sight in war zones.  Today, experienced personnel are getting replaced by robots, and the vehicles are equipped with several sophisticated devices such as cameras, sensors, and a vast range of control and command devices. Rugged switches with Ethernet capabilities and routers are largely being used by these vehicles nowadays. These switches are designed and tested to meet MIL-STDs for environment and EMF requirements.
  • Airborne: Compact sized and lightweight air vehicles are slowly replacing heavyweight air vehicles. Today, design engineers in the aviation, military, and aerospace industries are challenged to design devices that meet the minimal height, weight, and size requirements while assuring 100% reliability in extreme environments. Ethernet technologies assure reliability, interoperability, and speed, which is why they are becoming a standard for several stationary and winged air vehicles such as helicopters, commercial aircraft, and unmanned air vehicles. Military-grade ruggedized switches with Ethernet capabilities and routers play a key role in these airborne vehicles as they enable better information centralization and data management than other technologies.
  • Marine: Marine platforms encompass a large network of devices including command and control, video surveillance, sonar, radar, cargo, radio guidance, weapon systems, and so on. Often establishing communications between these various devices become difficult. To simplify it, warships, submarines, and regular ships are being equipped with Ethernet technologies. Military Ethernet switches, routers, and media converters form the backbone of these complex networks. Unlike the regular commercial Ethernet switches, the rugged switches for military applications are tested to meet the impact, EMF, and EMI requirements.

In addition to these, Gigabit Ethernet, Fast Ethernet, and Ethernet switches are employed in various military systems such as bomber, reconnaissance, and navy vehicles.

Important MIL STDs and Other Industry Standards

Military Ethernet switches are manufactured and tested to the following important standards.

  • MIL-STD or MIL-Spec: This is the military standard developed to follow the standardization objectives of the United States Department of Defense. The following are a few popular MIL-Spec standards employed for Ethernet development, design, and testing.
    • MIL-STD -461: This standard emphasizes on the electromagnetic interference protection of equipment, components, and subsystems.
    • MIL-STD-810: The standard highlights the testing methods needed for determining the effects of the environment on the equipment used. For instance, some rugged switches used in military equipment are tested for protection against temperature, immersion, rain, sand, dust, salt fog, humidity, vibration, and so on.
    • MIL-STD-1275: The standard discusses the statistics for 28 VDC electrical systems that are used in military vehicles. Having said that, it also covers the requirements for electrical components like Ethernet switches. 
    • MIL- STD-704: It is the United States Military Standard that discusses the electrical power characteristics of the military aircraft and its components. The Ethernet switches that are MIL-STD-704 certified may survive electrical abnormalities such as transients, spikes, surges, ripples, and other disturbances. 
    • MIL-F-18870-E: This standard covers the general requirements for the fire control equipment that is used in naval shipboard weapon systems.
    • MIL-STD-167-1A: It specifies the requirements of vibration testing of naval shipboard equipment that is installed on ships.
  • RTCA: The RTCA, Inc., which was earlier known as Radio Technical Commission of Aeronautics, is a voluntary organization in the US, which develops guidelines for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). RTCA also develops and regulates guidelines for use by different regulatory organizations.
    • RTCA DO-160G for Airborne Equipment:  This outlines the standard procedures as well as environmental testing criteria for airborne equipment. The Ethernet switches designed for use in the complete spectrum of airborne equipment from light aircraft to helicopters to jumbo jets will be tested following the criteria highlighted here.
  • STANAG: This is a standardization agreement in NATO, which outlines terms and conditions, procedures, and processes for military procedures or equipment to be shared between the different NATO member countries.
    • STANAG 4370: This STANAG standard outlines the data and characteristics of environmental conditions that influence the design of defense equipment and subsequent testing conditions based on the same.
    • STANAG 2985: This STANAG standard outlines test conditions for equipment, devices, and components for use in extreme climatic conditions and derived conditions.
  • IP67: The ruggedized switches for use in naval applications must be IP67 compliant, which ensures they can withstand immersion up to 1 meter.
  • IP68: The rigid switches used in naval applications must be IP68 compliant, which means the O-rings in these switches can withstand immersion up to 3 meters.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030 by the Department of Defense recommends the use of network-supportive Ethernet technologies, owing to the distinct advantages it offers. The technology has reached maturity, which has resulted in the availability of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software and hardware for military use. The popularity of Ethernet in military applications is driven by networks, which form the backbone of the Global Information Grid (GIG), a cornerstone of military’s connected warfare. All these factors indicate that the demand for Ethernet switches will continue to increase in military and commercial applications in the years to come.
VERSITRON specializes in various types of industrial switches including military Ethernet switches and commercial switches. The company also provides various products including CCTV analog video to fiber converters, MicroModems, and fiber data and voice links. All its fiber optic military solutions are built to MIL-STDs. Contact Us for more information.