By Chester N. Kennedy
Not a week passes without news of another cyber incursion, whether to the electricity grid, municipal systems, commercial companies or defense systems. These incursions are at best a costly nuisance and at worst an alarming indication of how vulnerable our critical systems are. Securing these systems requires more than protecting our networks from hacking; we must also protect the foundational microelectronics hardware.
Microelectronics are indispensable, providing the technological foundation for U.S. national security, our economy and our society. They underpin military systems, critical infrastructure and transportation. They drive the economy, embedded both in products we use and in how these products are made and sold. Microelectronics enable key tools we use, from managing health care and financial information, to our communications and navigation. They drive the Internet, our 24-7 information source, and social media, the glue that connects our society. Emerging disruptive technologies, such as autonomous systems and the Internet of Things, are highly dependent upon microelectronics, and will soon be pervasive in the industrial, commercial and military arenas.
Yet today, most microelectronics manufacturing, including the commercial electronics used by the U.S. military, has moved off-shore, primarily to Asia. Of the three companies developing leading edge semiconductors, only one is U.S. flagged.
Offshoring has driven down the cost of these sophisticated components, placing more computing power at our fingertips than what it took to put a man on the moon. But this low cost comes with substantial risks. The microelectronics supply chain is a complex web spanning multiple countries. Numerous vulnerabilities exist, potentially including: intellectual property theft, malicious content insertion, design modification to weaken systems, and counterfeit components. Any major weapon system component could change hands 15 times before its final installation.
Counterfeit electronic parts have been discovered in U.S. military weapons sights and military aircraft, including in navigational and flight control systems. Corrupted chips in industrial controls of a dam or chemical plant, in a military weapon system, driverless vehicle or medical device could be catastrophic.
Keenly aware of the strategic value of microelectronics production, China is investing heavily in microelectronics, targeting the entire semiconductor ecosystem. China has committed $150 billion for R&D and acquisition of semiconductor companies. High-end computer chips and technology start-ups are particularly attractive acquisition targets. Furthermore, in its report, Foreign Economic Espionage in Cyberspace, the U.S. intelligence community warns that China uses cyber espionage to support its science and technology advancement, military modernization and economic policy objectives. The licit and illicit transfer of U.S. intellectual property, coupled with China’s investment in R&D and manufacturing, can shift the locus of innovation, opening our critical infrastructure to attack and degrading national security.
With microelectronics poised to define the world of tomorrow, changes must be made to safeguard the future of our nation. So, what are the next steps in the journey to ensuring our national security? Join us next week on the blog as we explore the solution to this critical challenge.