Senate committee turns up heat on counterfeit parts in the military

By John Keller
Editor in Chief

I finally feel like someone is listening.

For years now, I and a select few involved in supplying high-reliability, high-quality electronics parts for U.S. and allied military applications, have felt like isolated voices in the wilderness when it comes to what might be the most dangerous and frightening development ever in the aerospace and defense electronics industry.

I'm referring, of course, to counterfeit electronic parts-integrated circuits, capacitors, amplifiers, batteries, connectors, and other electronic components that, despite some safeguards in place to prevent it, somehow can make their way into mission- and life-critical military systems where they can compromise quality, or wreak havoc much worse.

It's not too difficult to find the cause of counterfeit parts; like most things it boils down to money. Most military systems have to function in the field for decades, unlike commercial systems that run the courses of their useful lives in a few years before being replaced. The military doesn't have that luxury. It's too expensive to replace sophisticated military equipment every few years.

The problem involves maintenance, upgrades, and the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) parts purchased on the commercial market. In essence, the military is dipping into the same well as commercial systems designers who only have to keep the technology working for a few years before replacement. As a result, parts for military systems tend to dry up as parts manufacturers phase them out in favor of supporting the latest technology.

There is, of course, infrastructure in place designed to keep parts available for military systems. It largely involves aftermarket houses like Rochester Electronics in Newburyport, Mass.; Lansdale Semiconductor in Phoenix; and the Defense Supply Center Columbus, in Columbus, Ohio.

Despite this infrastructure, things fall through the cracks and crucial parts can disappear from trusted, authorized supply channels. That's where bad things can happen. Program managers under intense cost pressures start looking for replacement parts anywhere they can at a reasonable price, which often leads to the gray market or the black market where the counterfeit parts live.

A counterfeit part tends to be a cheap knockoff of an original part. It can look the same and fit the same, but its quality is suspect. Lots of counterfeit parts come from shady manufacturers here and abroad who are trying to make a quick buck. Some of them, however, may have more nefarious intentions in mind.

Counterfeit parts without the proper pedigree and documentation, which come from unauthorized sources, risk containing harmful software or hidden access that might enable an adversary to shut down an important military system, change the system's parameters, or turn these systems against their operators. It's a bad situation that can only get worse over time. Now, though, it looks like the people who have been warning about counterfeit parts might not be alone anymore.

U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are working together with colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee and launching an investigation into counterfeit parts in the U.S. Department of Defense supply chain. The committee released a statement in March that reads, in part, "Counterfeit parts pose a risk to our national security, the reliability of our weapons systems, and the safety of our military men and women. The proliferation of counterfeit goods also damages our economy and costs American jobs."

The Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to call public hearings on the matter of counterfeit electronic parts in the military later this year. It's about time that a problem of this magnitude got the public attention it deserves.

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June 2015
Volume 26, Issue 6
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