Mike Buetow

It didn’t take the dumping of hacked emails from politicians or a trove of government secrets on Wikileaks for those in IT to know that cybersecurity is a really big deal. In the rush for the world to connect its digital systems, however, it seems more than a few others have lost their bearings.

But cybersecurity is just one aspect of the frightening holes in the defense industry these days. Foreign nationals own big stakes in some major US defense suppliers. The divided loyalties that come with such holdings generally get a pass with the Defense Department, I’m told. If we can’t protect our most important secrets at Lockheed or Booz Hamilton or Boeing from outsiders, however, it strains logic to believe they can’t – or won’t – be compromised from the inside.

Such administrative indifference affects the entire supply chain. According to the Department of Commerce, the US is down to 202 merchant bare board plants spread across 185 fabricators. That’s a staggering drop in number from just 15 years ago. More to the point, the capacity of key technologies is even slimmer.

This fall the DoC, with help from the Naval Surface Warfare Crane Division, completed initial analysis on a comprehensive study of the US PCB industry. Speaking at PCB West in September, Mark Crawford, senior trade and industry analyst at the Commerce Department’s Office of Technology Evaluation, noted the growing disconnect between the needs of the US government and the ability of the US supply chain to meet them. According to his survey, DoD spending on PCBs was $544 million in 2015, of which 54% was supplied by shops with revenues of $10 million to $40 million. In other words, the majority of these custom components are coming from companies whose annual sales are less than what Mark Zuckerberg earns per week.

While it didn’t take a survey to know there are a grand total of three shops certified to MIL-PRF-31032 with microvia capability and four listed to the high-frequency slash sheet, the DoC data add a government agency stamp to what has long been known by insiders: US shops are getting eaten alive. “Clearly the industry is under stress from offshore competitors that don’t have to play by the same rules,” Crawford said.

If the survey was intended to generate convincing data that the US lacks sufficient critical military PCB capacity, I’d say it succeeded. It’s long past time this was made a priority. What should be done? Here’s one editor’s suggestions:

  • US defense contractors need a closed intranet system, one accessible only by a relative handful of key and highly vetted players. Such a network has been suggested before; funding and implementation are long overdue.
  • Educate lawmakers as to what a PCB is and its importance to US defense. This means handpicking articulate industry spokespersons, rather than turning scores of well-meaning but uninformed company execs loose in D.C. for the day. I’ve been to enough industry lobbying days to know the intentions are good, but the execution is wanting. Too many (read: all) legislators look at boards as just another component, and not a particularly critical one at that. It’s time to send in the pros.
  • Get the top 10 suppliers of bare boards of critical technologies to the DoD for a day-long meeting. Round up as many key Congress members on defense and appropriations as possible. Define for those buyers what each shop does, and underscore the financial state of each company relative to importance of the product.
  • Consolidate procurement and regulations. ITAR is administered by the State Department. Purchasing (Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy) and inventory control (Defense Logistics Agency) are overseen by various arms of the DoD. There are too many teams with too many competing missions. And get some help to DSCC, which has no chance of properly auditing and certifying board suppliers on a skeleton crew that can’t leave the office.
  • Designate a point person for industry to share its concerns over IP theft (or the potential thereof) and other found weaknesses in the electronics supply chain. And make public that person’s name, so that whistleblowers know whom to call.
  • As Peter Bigelow suggests in ROI this month, the US defense supply chain should stay out of the cloud, at least until such time those servers and all related access points can be properly secured (never, probably).
  • Stop with the overarching emphasis on price. When the US is paying $250 million for each F-35B fighter plane, it’s offensive to try to save 10 cents on a critical component.

In the ’80s, I recall my high school social studies teacher mocking the US government for paying $7,500 for a coffee maker. Those were the days. With IP and military security on the line, it’s time for a return to the past.

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