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Secure Chip Drives Modern Cryptographic Systems

October 15, 2008
by Henry S. Kenyon

The newest version of a proven cryptographic system is being embedded in many of the most advanced platforms entering service in the U.S. military. The Advanced Infosec Machine (AIM) microchip is a programmable, embeddable security engine for cryptography processing. AIM is a key part of several major defense programs such as the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) and the F-22 raptor.

AIM is the cryptographic engine in the JTRS Enhanced Multiband Inter/Intra Team Radio (MBITR) (JEM) radio and the JTRS Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit radio. It also is the cryptographic engine for the radios in the JTRS airborne, maritime and fixed programs, explains Bill Ross, director of the information assurance systems and programs business unit at General Dynamics C4 Systems. The chip is embedded in the General Dynamics-manufactured Digital Modular Radio used by the U.S. Navy. 

The device consolidates a variety of components once spread across a large circuit card into a single size- and power-optimized microchip. AIM supports the processing of cryptographic data, all of the complex control functions of the cryptographic engine and key management requirements. Ross believes that no single-purpose cryptographic system is currently available on the market. “Different applications have different size, weight, power, assurance, flexibility, programmability and adaptability requirements,” he observes.

Ross adds that AIM fits in the middle of this operational spectrum for platforms with mid-range size, weight and power constraints. These applications also must support long-term flexibility and programmability to support long-term cryptographic modernization. He explains that the low end of the spectrum consists of single-purpose systems such as dedicated voice applications, while on the other end are high-speed dedicated cryptographic functions. AIM "gives you the flexibility and agility you need to continuously upgrade and support modernization as new applications and communication requirements come online,” he says.

The earliest version of AIM appeared in 1999, with variants of the chip embedded in a range of Type 1 secure products and applications. Ross notes that when it was first introduced, the device mainly supported voice communications. Over time, the microchip was upgraded to support the U.S. Defense Department’s growing need for high-speed data transmissions. Enhanced for additional bandwidth and processing speed, AIM can support a range of waveforms such as those for live video transmissions.

Since its debut, Ross shares that AIM has continually evolved over time to emphasize performance and power savings. The cryptographic system is used extensively in avionics platforms. He explains that besides meeting the size and weight requirements for airborne systems, the chip can secure multiple types of data such as avionics and mission data. Specifically designed to support Type 1 encrypted military systems, the AIM microchip is also used in some non-Type 1 platforms. But its use depends on specific mission requirements, he says.

AIM’s application in a range of new systems such as JTRS is an outgrowth of the Defense Department’s ongoing Cryptographic Modernization Initiative. The government launched the effort to modernize its large inventory of aging cryptographic equipment, Ross explains. The initiative’s goal is to replace obsolete technologies while preserving much of the legacy capability now in place. The effort also seeks to make new and existing systems flexible enough to accept new features and functions as they are developed. Ross notes that another advantage of new programmable technologies is that they eliminate the need for blanket equipment replacements and migration to new technologies as they develop. The AIM chip allows equipment to accept new waveforms in the field. He adds that the device fully supports the modernization effort.

Ross explains that the Cryptographic Modernization Effort is the catalyst for AIM’s widespread use. “All of these [military] applications have legacy communication requirements. I must be able to communicate with legacy systems, but I also have these modern networking waveforms that I need to deploy. That is specifically what AIM targets: the ability to retain legacy and simultaneously run and support the new networking waveforms coming out of the pipe for these new platforms,” he says.