Pentagon to Boost Investment in Microelectronics to Compete with China
Photo: Melanie Yu / NDIA
With China and other nations increasing funding for the development of microelectronics, the Pentagon is planning to make major investments to ensure it stays ahead of the pack, said one department official June 14.
Microelectronics underpin some of the Defense Department’s top technology focus areas including quantum computing, artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, space and biotechnology, said Kristen Baldwin, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for systems engineering.
“China is investing $150 billion just in microelectronics technology ... and creating national and industry partnerships, not only within China but with other international partners,” she said during remarks at the Women In Defense national conference in Washington, D.C. WID is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.
Chinese-made microelectronics have long been a concern for the Pentagon, with officials worrying that Beijing could hide undetectable malicious apps or code inside U.S. military systems.
To counter foreign investments in microelectronics and bolster the United States' industrial base, the Defense Department plans to increase funding substantially for research into the technology, Baldwin told reporters during a briefing at the conference.
Between fiscal years 2019 and 2023, the Pentagon plans to spend about $2 billion for a new program called microelectronics innovation for national security and economic competitiveness, or MINSEC, which was included in President Donald Trump's proposed 2019 budget, she said.
Funding is subject to congressional appropriators, but engagement with legislators has been very positive, she noted.
“There’s a good recognition of microelectronics as a critical technology," Baldwin said. The "program will make an investment in advanced, disruptive technologies."
MINSEC will focus on four key areas. The first will be an effort with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop next-generation microelectronics technology, she said.
The next is on specialty systems, she said. There are “specialty needs that the department has that the commercial sector won’t necessarily seek to achieve in microelectronics, like our radiation-hardened microelectronics,” Baldwin said.
The third focuses on the secure design of such systems and the fourth will be on modernization, she noted.
“[We want] to modernize our systems with more advanced microelectronics rather than legacy and obsolete microelectronics because that leads to counterfeit" products, she said.
Baldwin has for years led a microelectronics innovation initiative within the Pentagon to create and promote the development of such technology within the United States, she noted. That includes not only the defense and aerospace industries, but also the broader commercial industrial base, she said.
The initiative was created out of concern about potential vulnerabilities in the Defense Department’s software and hardware systems, Baldwin said.
One way the Pentagon has tried to get at the issue is by using the Defense Microelectronics Activity’s Trusted Foundry program that uses certain foundries to manufacture chips for highly sensitive systems.
In 2017, the Pentagon kicked off an initiative to develop and design identification techniques for trusted and assured microelectronics, Baldwin said.
“Now I don’t necessarily [need to] buy from a certain sole-source trusted foundry," she said. "I can buy more commercially to a standard and then I can have an understood level of assurance.”