The Defense Department on Tuesday said it would strengthen efforts to prevent Chinese counterfeit parts from ending up in the U.S. military’s supply chain.
The Pentagon statement came after a Senate Armed Services Committee released a report saying that 1 million suspected “bogus parts” had been found in U.S. military aircraft, including the Air Force’s largest cargo plane, in assemblies intended for special operations helicopters, and in a Navy surveillance plane.
“Our report outlines how this flood of counterfeit parts, overwhelmingly from China, threatens national security, the safety of our troops and American jobs,” Sen. Carl M. Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, said in a statement.
“It underscores China’s failure to police the blatant market in counterfeit parts — a failure China should rectify,” Mr. Levin said.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s ranking Republican, also said in the statement that “vulnerabilities throughout the defense supply chain allow the counterfeit electronic parts to infiltrate critical U.S. military systems.”
A Chinese Embassy spokesman could not be reached for a comment.
“We are working very hard to try to sort this issue out, and take steps to further strengthen our supply chain,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.
Peter W. Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said even the smallest counterfeit parts can cause considerable concern.
For instance, a computer that can operate a toaster or a Tomahawk missile could have a design that involves hundreds of people at multiple locations, he said.
“The result is a dangerous combination: The chips have become so complex that no single engineer or even team of engineers can understand how all their parts actually work,” Mr. Singer said. “The process of design is so distributed that no one can know all the people involved, and they are manufactured in such a great number that not even a tiny percentage can be tested.”
A 2011 Senate Armed Services Committee report found that a faulty chip in a sensor on a Navy helicopter deployed to the USS Gridley in the Pacific Fleet would have prevented the pilot from firing its missiles, he noted.
“The manufacturer, Raytheon, was completely unaware, as like most major defense firms, it didn’t make the chips inside its systems, but instead buys them from Chinese vendors,” Mr. Singer said.
“You think you’re buying high-end tires for your sports car, but if they’re counterfeit, they’re not as good as what you’re paying for and might fail,” he said.
A greater concern, he added, is that a counterfeit part is designed to create some kind of covert effect, such as containing a “kill switch” that could shut down equipment.
“The chip might appear like it’s working perfectly, but really it’s sending information to someone else, dropping malware, or coordinating with other corrupted chips to carry out some kind of bigger attack,” Mr. Singer said. “More like a cyberattack than just a fail.”
Mr. Little said the Defense Department has stepped up its aggressive actions to address the problem on many fronts, including a memorandum issued in March designed to take initial steps to create an anti-counterfeiting program.
He added that the Pentagon has worked closely with the White House intellectual property coordinator to try to strengthen contractors’ reporting requirements.
When counterfeiting problems are identified, the Pentagon works closely with law enforcement agencies to investigate the issues and, where appropriate, debars companies and supports the prosecution of counterfeiters, Mr. Little said.
He said that, to date, the Pentagon is unaware of any loss of life or catastrophic mission failure that has occurred because of counterfeit parts, or any demonstrable impact.
But “that doesn’t mean we should stop addressing the issue,” he added.