As highlighted in a report by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, a flood of counterfeit electronic parts from China threatens the reliability of sophisticated defense technologies from thermal weapon sights to advanced missile systems and from aircraft to submarines.
The committee found more than 1,800 cases of counterfeit parts in defense systems. But like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, what we can see is only a small part of the problem.
From our respective vantage points in the defense and computer industries, we have observed that the problem has continued to grow in recent years. While the federal government and the defense industry are implementing prevention and detection measures, additional action is needed by Congress.
Counterfeits threaten reliability because advanced defense systems require sensitive electronic components manufactured in ultra-clean environments. Employees must wear “bunny suits” to prevent skin or hair being shed into the environment because even a small flake of dandruff can ruin a microchip and potentially compromise the performance of the hardware it drives. Moreover, legitimate semiconductor companies subject all of their chips to electronic testing to ensure they perform properly. Military chips are subject to additional environmental testing.
By contrast, counterfeiters re-process used electronic components pulled from e-waste — the source of their feedstock. As the Armed Services Committee report found, “much of the material used to make counterfeit electronic parts is electronic waste, or e-waste, shipped from the United States and the rest of the world to China.” (end of excerpt)
Henry Livingston is a technical director and Engineering Fellow at BAE Systems, a global defense, security and aerospace company. Tom Sharpe is vice president at SMT Corp., an electronics distributor to the defense and aerospace industries and counterfeit mitigation laboratory. Jim Burger, a partner at the law firm Thompson Coburn LLC, is an advisor to the computer industry.
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