The US is scrambling to secure the supply chain behind its flagship F-35 fighter jet after discovering Chinese-made magnets in certain units, raising safety concerns should Beijing block access to the parts in a conflict situation.
The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the US Department of Defense has begun using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve its verification of whether aircraft parts, electronics and raw materials used by US defense contractors are from China or others opponents originate.
The WSJ report states that US defense companies have been encouraged by the Pentagon and lawmakers to reduce their reliance on microelectronics and rare earth metals from China.
The move comes after multiple media reports that Lockheed Martin found Made in China cobalt and samarium alloys in magnets for the F-35’s turbomachinery pumps.
Politico noted this month that turbomachinery pumps combine an auxiliary power unit and an air cycle machine to provide power for main engine start-up, backup power, and compressed air for the thermal management system during ground maintenance.
US federal regulations, introduced in late August, ban the use of specialty metals and alloys from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia in US defense equipment.
The move may just be the tip of the iceberg. In an article for the Heritage Foundation this month, senior analyst Maiya Clark noted that the discovery of Chinese-made magnets in one of the top US fighter jets could cause a domino effect of production delays.
She found that the affected magnet supplier must stop work on this magnet, which means the lubrication pump supplier must stop work while waiting for the magnets, resulting in Honeywell being unable to work on the F-35 turbomachinery .
As a result, Lockheed Martin cannot assemble an F-35 without turbomachinery units. The delay could, over time, open up significant capability gaps in gaining air superiority, reducing operational readiness and crippling US allies’ capabilities.
The sudden ban on Made in China components marks a departure from previous US policy on using such parts on the F-35. In 2014, Reuters reported that the US waived legislation banning Chinese-made components for the F-35 to keep the multi-billion dollar fighter jet program on track, despite US officials raising concerns about espionage.
The Reuters report mentions that the US has authorized Northrop Grumman and Honeywell to use Chinese-made magnets on the F-35’s radars, landing gear and other hardware. Such a waiver is necessary to circumvent sanctions and ensure the F-35 program stays on schedule, the report said.
True to Sun Tzu’s maxim that “winning without a fight is the pinnacle of excellence,” China could potentially undermine US military supremacy by exploiting vulnerabilities in the supply chain of rare earth metals and microchips.
Regarding rare earth metals, a 2020 US Congressional Research Service report found that the US imported 100% of its supply of rare earth metals, including samarium, in 2019, a fact it says has significant national security implications since China is the world’s largest producer of the metal.
Also, last month National Defense Magazine found that China produces 80% of the world’s cobalt, a crucial element for lithium-ion batteries, magnets for stealth technology and electronic warfare, and ammunition. The report notes that China may not need to use its military to get what it wants, with its crucial influence over global supplies of strategic materials and rare earth elements.
Microchips made in China are also finding their way into sensitive US applications. In a 2018 article for The National Interest, Michael Peck noted that 90% of the world’s printed circuit boards are printed in Asia, and half of that is produced in China.
In a 2021 article in The Strategy Bridge, Evan Hanson noted that China is poised to lead global microchip and semiconductor production by 2030, narrowing the pool of potential chip suppliers that could support the production of US military equipment and weapons .
Hanson also points out that China’s significant investments and global adoption of AI and 5G technologies have exacerbated supply chain vulnerabilities, enabled technology theft and exposed data on materials used in US and NATO weapon systems.
China’s dominance in semiconductor manufacturing could allow counterfeit Chinese parts to find their way into US military supply chains, with potentially disastrous consequences.
In 2017, the WSJ reported that defective Chinese chips had found their way into US Navy helicopters in 2011, a flaw that potentially prevented them from launching missiles. While the report noted that subsequent investigations concluded that the chips’ failure was unintentional, the incident fits with China’s military strategy of using asymmetric means to counter the US.
It also notes that expansive and opaque supply chains make it nearly impossible to verify the reliability and ultimate source of weapons-grade microchips, with critical functions like intelligence gathering and missile defense potentially at risk.
Aside from potentially manufacturing defective chips, China may have already played a backdoor card in this glaring US vulnerability.
In 2018, Bloomberg reported how Chinese military agents allegedly managed to place discrete backdoor chips on US motherboards made in China and used by major US companies such as Amazon and Apple.
These components are also used in sensitive military applications such as secure cloud computing for intelligence agencies, drone operations, and the US Navy’s warship networks.
The Bloomberg report states that these backdoor chips, which Chinese military agents applied during the manufacturing process, would have allowed China to control the machines they were placed in or possibly gain access to classified information.
In the face of these well-publicized threats, the Biden administration released a study in 2021 that concluded that the US’s over-reliance on foreign suppliers and near-peer adversaries for strategic materials posed a significant national and security threat.
As a follow-up to the study, the Biden administration signed the CHIPS Act in August 2022, providing $280 billion to revitalize the US semiconductor industry and counter China in this crucial area.
Significantly, China may already have overtaken the US in critical chip technologies. In a July article for The New York Times, David Sanger notes that China has already made chips with circuits 10,000 times thinner than a human hair, rivaling the Taiwan-made chips used in the most advanced and sensitive civilian and commercial worlds used in military applications.
Major powers are now scrambling to achieve self-sufficiency by shutting down their supply chains for critical technologies and sectors for reasons of national security.
But the US may already be feeling the pinch of its rush to bring back to shore critical strategic parts, components and materials, including semiconductors and rare earth elements. But unless the US quickly regains its lead and China capitalizes on its recent technological breakthroughs, then US national security will indeed be in jeopardy.