Interview with Steve Shpock from Stellant Systems

  • Steve Shpock - COO at Stellant Systems

everything RF recently interviewed Steve Shpock who is the COO (Chief Operating Officer) at Stellant Systems. Steve was appointed Chief Operating Officer for Stellant Systems in October 2022. Steve has over 35 years of experience in the RF and Microwave business and has held positions of increasing technical and management responsibility with L3Harris, Vitec Group, Thales, Cobham and CPI.

Q. Can you give us a brief history of Stellant Systems? How was the company formed and what was the objective?

Steve Shpock: There are three paths that led to what is now Stellant Systems. First, Charles Litton’s San Carlos, CA based Engineering Laboratories originated in 1932. Coupled with Howard Hughes’ Torrance, CA based Microwave Tube division that started in 1959, along with multiple acquisitions and consolidation of divisions that operated under larger organizations (Sylvania, Loral, GM Hughes, Sperry, GE, RCA Raytheon, L3Harris—to name a few), led to what is currently the three Stellant Systems locations at Torrance, Williamsport PA, and Folsom CA. What is now known as Stellant Systems was purchased by Arlington Capital Partners, a Washington D.C.-based private equity firm in October of 2021 because they saw it as an especially unique asset within the defence electronics ecosystem.

Q. What market segments do you target, and which segment drives the most business for you?

Steve Shpock: I would say Stellant is re-dedicating itself to those market area strategies where we know our products and services make a difference and adapting to those market demands rather than shifting our strategy. We cover a broad array of markets, cross-sectioning in defence, space, and commercial markets. Stellant products are used in defense systems protecting the US and its allies around the globe as critical power amplification products in radars, air defense missile and counter UAS systems, air and sea based electronic protection systems, etc. But we also offer key products in life and sight saving medical devices, synthetic diamond manufacturing, television broadcasting, and laboratory and university research.

We see space – in all orbital areas --- as a vital industry where higher frequency and power coupled with SwaP consciousness will continue to grow. As you know, Stellant is one of only two manufacturers of Space-Qualified TWT Amplifiers in the world and we are the only one in the USA. 

Stellant's Space Qualifed TWT Amplifiers

Electromagnetic spectrum operations (EMSO)/ Defense is a resurgent market area for the types of products Stellant makes, particularly our helix traveling wave tubes (TWTs) and microwave power modules (MPMs), and we are excited about supporting companies and military services around the world that are helping put the U.S. back in a position of excellence in that domain. 

Q. Can you tell us more about your product portfolio?

Steve Shpock: Stellant currently has a deep portfolio of RF amplification products, however we are actively looking to expand that portfolio where it can help us meet specific customer product and/or mission gaps. Our existing product offerings, from Klystrons and Magnetrons to TWTAs and MPMs, power outputs range from a few watts to megawatts depending on the product and frequency coverage ranges, from low bands such as L for Cobra Dane up through MMW for Electronic Warfare and Space based applications.

Q. Stellant develops a complete range of Solid State & TWT amplifiers. Can you tell us more about this product line, its intended applications and what makes them unique?

Steve Shpock: Stellant is the only supplier of space-qualified TWTs in the U.S. As you know, the space market is amid a resurgence, from new satellite systems to space tourism. Those concerns extend to the fragile industrial base that supports the manufacture of space-qualified traveling wave tubes (TWTs) and traveling wave tube amplifiers (TWTAs). Space-qualified TWTs are extremely specialized due to the rigors of the design, assembly, testing and reliability screening. Therefore, the market has very high barriers to entry, resulting in only two Western-based companies supplying U.S. defense, NASA and many commercial satellites.

Space-Qualified TWT's Offered by Stellant

We are actively working to improve and reduce the risk to the TWT critical supply chain as described in the Department of Defense (DoD)  Annual Industrial Capabilities Report (IC Report) to Congress in 2018, 2019 and 2020 where it was concluded that investment is needed to spur development of TWTAs better suited to the small satellite market and asserting that "having a strong domestic source would reduce dependence on the foreign source and ensure availability of NSS specific TWTAs".

Q. Stellant has an impressive range of high-power microwave tubes like klystron, magnetrons etc. Over the years, Microwave Tubes have started getting replaced with Solid State Devices. What is your take on the future of this segment? What are some advantages or properties of Microwave Tubes which cannot be replaced with Solid State Devices.

Steve Shpock: TWTAs and SSPAs, I think, are really two sides of the same coin. Both provide power amplification across a range of frequencies, with SSPAs generally best suited at lower powers and frequencies while tubes generally excel at higher powers and frequencies - think MMW in MEO and higher orbits, or MMW electronic jammers on ships or aircraft. 

Highly efficient, high-power amplifiers are required for two primary reasons today: 1) the constant addition of new electronics packages to system RF chains are consuming existing power margins, and 2) the increasing stand-off requirements (distance from thereat or target). The future of the “electronic attack” side of EW is through coherent waveforms (“digital EW”), instead of noise, but power is still required to send those smart waveforms across long distances. 

Solid State Amplifiers are closing the power gap faster than the bandwidth gap when contrasted with vacuum tube electronics. For instance, several SSA manufacturers now offer 250+W amps in X-Band and Ka-Band but cover no more than 200 MHz bandwidth. In addition, there are 2 different 400W SSA, X- band, in production today. These small bandwidth, high power SSA’s seem to work for concepts like small swarming, unmanned systems where discreet units can be programmed to cover segmented portions of the entire threat bandwidth. But the tube technology is still required and, in many cases, demanded, to deal with very large bandwidth threats.  

SSPAs are getting better than they were in the past in the thermal efficiency area, especially with the temporary (spray on) treatments available for components, but tubes are, as a rule, more efficient across the board.  

Finally, size, weight, power, efficiency, and form factor matter. SSA’s are also demonstrating greater “line replaceable unit” functionality (think ease of replacement at the flight line or on board ship) than generally associated with TWTs but that is something our industry is working to improve. A good example of TWT LRUs are the tubes used in the U.S.’s premier electronic warfare jamming pod – the U.S. Navy’s ALQ-99, where Stellant tubes have been in use – and replaceable at the unit level - for decades.

Q. Who are the major customers of Microwave Tube product Portfolio? What are some interesting applications where this has been used?

Steve Shpock: Our major customers run the gament of government, industry & commercial. Applications served: Radar, EW, SATCOM, Medical/ Scientific & Industrial. We design and manufactures high-quality products for both the diagnostic and treatment sectors of the worldwide medical X-ray market. We supply state-of-the-art, high-frequency output power solutions for medical diagnostic equipment.

Q. Developing Space qualified RF products is challenging task. How is this different from developing regular commercial products?

Steve Shpock: Space products are unique in that they must have a 15–20-year performance life span as part of their mission profile. Special confidence testing is used to verify expected life performance. In addition, other stringent environmental testing is performed on every unit to make sure it can survive the rigors of the rocket launch and general high orbit space conditions.

A Commercial HTS Spacecraft Employing Multiple Stellant System Q-Band LCTWTA's

Q. What differentiates Stellant Systems from other Space/SATCOM component manufacturers?

Steve ShpockStellant is the only vertically integrated space TWTA supplier in the world. We manufacture all in one—TWT, HV power supply, predistorter/preamp (LCAMP), MPMs and TWTAs are TWTs integrated with a power supply.  

Q. Does Stellant Systems develop standard catalogue products or are customization options available?

Steve ShpockMost of our products are tailored to specific customers’ requirements, however we do have a complete RF Components catalogue of our Active & Passive products.

Q.  Do you fabricate your own products? Can you tell us about your fabrication facility and product development process - from design to delivery of the end product?

Steve Shpock: We have 3 AS9100 & ISO9001 certified manufacturing facilities. Torrance & Folsom, CA and Williamsport, PA. 10 product lines including: Magnetrons, Crossed-Field Amplifiers, Klystrons, TWTs (CC, Helix, Mini) Electron Guns, IOTs, and MPMs reside under one roof in Williamsport. One of the only companies in the industry. All 3 facilities have specialized RF & Microwave Manufacturing capabilities. Including: Assembly, ET, Cathode Mfg. 

Q. What is your geographic break up of customers? Do you customers interact with you directly or do you have distributors/sales reps?

Steve Shpock: With our large portfolio of products, we have customers all around the world.

About Stellant Systems
Stellant Systems is a premier manufacturer of critical spectrum and RF power amplification systems to the space, defense, medical, science and industrial markets for both domestic and international customers. Stellant has three domestic manufacturing facilities and nearly 800 employees. For more information click here to view the Stellant Systems profile on everything RF.