Pentagon Investing in Microelectronics Technology

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Photo: iStock

With the security of Chinese-manufactured chips being called into question, the Defense Department is considering beefing up its investment in microelectronics, officials have said.

“If you’re right out at the pointy end of the spear, you might not want chips made in China being the foundation of your communications gear,” said Richard W. Linderman, deputy director for research and engineering in the office of the assistant secretary of defense.

Investment in microelectronics is expected to “increase dramatically,” he said at a recent conference in Arlington, Virginia.

The Pentagon is not only looking for high performance chips but trusted ones that have been manufactured in the United States, he said.

Mary Miller, who is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said China’s investment in microelectronics technology is worrying.

The issue “is of great concern to DoD because every weapon system we have has microelectronics,” she said during remarks at the inaugural Defense Department Human Capital Symposium in Southbridge, Massachusetts, according to a Pentagon news release.

China is investing $150 billion to match the United States’ capability by the early 2020s, she added. It wants to be the global leader in the technology by 2030.

Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said chips manufactured by China present a risk to the United States because the country could hardwire them with malicious programs and apps that run silently in the background.

“What is it that is going into our offices, carried in our purses on our bodies? What is going into our computers, … into DoD systems?” he said. Potentially vulnerable U.S. military equipment includes everything from aircraft avionics to weapons guidance systems, he noted.

Commercial-off-the-shelf items present a particular risk because many of them are manufactured in China, he added.

The Defense Microelectronics Activity runs the Defense Department’s Trusted Foundry program that uses certain foundries to manufacture chips for highly sensitive systems, he said. But with a military of over 1 million service members and countless pieces of equipment, those facilities cannot support all the chips that are needed, Cheng said.

“The Trusted Foundry is simply not large enough to do that kind of thing,” he said.

The U.S. government could better test Chinese chips for malicious programs, but there are challenges, he noted.

“Computer programs have zero-day exploits. Those are just gaps, flaws, failures, etc., that weren’t even necessarily programmed in,” he said. “What you would [also] be looking for here is potentially stuff that somebody was deliberately creating and hiding.”

The United States could also invest more money to develop its own chips, but that would be costly, Cheng added.

Topics: Infotech, Information Technology, Emerging Technologies, Electronics

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