Pandemic Focuses Military on Supply Chain Risks

By Mandy Mayfield

iStock photo-illustration

The armed services have been sharing more information and using risk assessment tools to better secure their supply chains amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Katie Arrington, chief information security officer in the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said the pandemic highlighted how dependent the U.S. supply chain is on products from adversarial nations. When the COVID-19 outbreak began, supply lines necessary to sustain production within the defense industry were frozen, highlighting the vulnerability of the defense industrial base to being cut off, analysts have said. 

For “those of us who have understood the vulnerability within the supply chain, the pandemic only heightened it and made us aware of the amount of reliance we’ve had on our adversaries” to provide critical materials and products, she said.

The Pentagon is working to dial back its reliance on nations of concern by “positioning our supply chains and our capabilities in allied partners countries ... that serve not just our [military] needs, but our commercial needs as well,” Arrington said during the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict conference. The event was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although the department had already been using risk assessment tools to share information, the services are now working with industry on employing them to secure supply chains, Arrington said.

The risk assessment tools the services are using allow them to share information with industry partners as well, she noted.

One of the biggest lessons learned has been how deeply suppliers influence one another, she said. An adversary can easily make an entire program vulnerable, Arrington said. 

Technologies such as artificial intelligence could help the Pentagon detect and manage problems, she suggested.

“We have to really work on these tools and indicators and warnings, and having AI behind them to help us,” she said.

The Defense Department also needs to start tracking items it may want to purchase sooner to ensure security, Arrington said. If a product or component is important to the Pentagon, “shouldn’t we be tracking it from cradle, from inception and [watching] who has been touching it, who is influencing it, who is tweaking it?” she asked.

Topics: Defense Department

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