Vernuccio’s View: The Real Cause of Navy Collisions

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The recent series of collisions affecting U.S. Navy vessels may be the result of the use of Chinese  computer chips. The navigation systems of vessels have been shown to be vulnerable to computer hacking. On Wednesday, Adm. John Richardson, the Navy’s chief of naval operations said that Navy investigators found no evidence that cyber intrusions played a part in the serious collisions of two guided-missile destroyers in the past three months. The Navy collisions involving the USS John S. McCain on August 21 and USS Fitzgerald on July 17 claimed the lives of 15 sailors.

Adam Rawnsley, writing in Wired reported: “The U.S. has been worried about its foreign-sourced chips in its supply chain for a while now. In a 2005 report, the Defense Science Board warned that the shift towards greater foreign circuit production posed the risk that ‘trojan horse’ circuits could be unknowingly installed in critical military systems. Foreign adversaries could modify chips to fizzle out early, the report said, or add secret back doors that would place a kill switch in military systems.”

An Information Age  analysis by Ben Rossi  in 2012 bluntly stated that a microchip “used by the US military and manufactured in China contains a secret ‘backdoor’ that means it can be shut off or reprogrammed without the user knowing, according to researchers at Cambridge University’s Computing Laboratory…”

Atlantic  reports that “The U.S. miltary has known for quite some time that they have a quality control problem with the microchips they’ve been buying in China. A 2005 report from the Defense Science Board warned that in buying weapon circuitry overseas, “trojan horse” chips could find their way into American weapons, potentially prompting missiles to detonate early or computers to shut down in the event of an attack.”

One of America’s top military leaders, now retired, told me that he was “deeply concerned” over the Pentagon’s dependence on China for key computer chips.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing, in a recent report, warned that “America’s military communications systems increasingly rely on network equipment from China, putting our entire defense at risk…New America Foundation senior fellow Peter Singer warned military leaders in 2015 that ‘America’s most advanced fighter jets might be blown from the sky by their Chinese-made microchips and Chinese hackers easily could worm their way into the military’s secretive intelligence service.’ “Defense systems in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps all face major supply chain vulnerabilities. Take semiconductors, which have been central to U.S. military and economic strength over the past century.

Semiconductors are used in the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, the Marine Corps’ F-35B Joint Strike Fighter and the Air Force’s F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, the Joint Director Attack Munition Precision Guidance Kit used by the Army and Marine Corps, and the communications systems for all four branches…the U.S. has faced a steady decline in semiconductor fabrication, which is increasingly happening in Asia. The U.S. share of semiconductor fabrication decreased from nearly 50 percent in 1980 to only 15 percent in 2012.”

In addition to the potential for spying or intentionally disabling U.S. military equipment , threats from defective equipment originating in China looms large. In 2011, Buck Sexton found that, according to U.S. Senate sources, “on 1,800 separate occasions, the U.S. military or contractors have purchased electronics materials for defense systems that were either fake or poorly recycled. In some cases, defective chips made their way into critical U.S. weapons and navigation systems. The examples could provide a serious wake-up call to defense contractors and others involved in the military supply chain. Seventy percent of them originated in China. Another 20 percent came from countries such as Canada and the U.K. that resold Chinese parts to the U.S. Realistically, closer to 90 percent of faulty electronics in military equipment came from China.

While the report focuses on unintentional threats to the military supply chain, the presence of shoddy Chinese electronics in thousands of devices and the apparent U.S. reliance on China for its national defense supply chain should concern all Americans.”

Frank V. Vernuccio, Jr., J.D.

Frank V. Vernuccio, Jr., J.D.

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government

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