COVID 19 Exposes US Microelectronics Vulnerability


By John Costello, Microsemi

With the COVID -19 Pandemic wreaking havoc on the US, a major issues to emerge outside the actual pandemic is dependence on foreign sources in US supply chain, not only for pharmaceutical raw materials, but also critical microelectronics for DOD and DHS infrastructure applications. Bureaucrats were asleep, virtually every trade study and industrial based report conducted over the last decade concluded we were too dependent on Asia.

Microchip/Microsemi is the largest US supplier of mil & space qualified components in existence with roughly a 30% market share of DOD applications, we understand this issue more than anyone, including the pentagon. Over the last five years I have briefed congressman, senators, senior members of House & Senate Armed Services and senior pentagon officials about these vulnerabilities. What I have observed is elected lawmakers have a reasonable understanding of the issue, bureaucrats at DOD do not. They have yet to implement an executable plan after being consistently prompted by congress for years.

Unfortunately, bureaucrats are unable to understand the difference between state- of- the -art microelectronics (SOTA) and state of the practice/legacy microelectronics and why these two can never align. Product lifecycles and economic realities of commercially driven markets clash with the tedious and cumbersome aerospace & defense process.

The vast majority of devices on mil/space programs use Mission Critical Devices (mostly state of the practice, proven, reliable and vigorously tested) not SOTA. In the commercial world, hand- held electronic devices are upgraded in a 12-18- month period to accommodate new product releases. In the mil/space world, By the time a part is designed on a board, qualified on a subsystem, makes its way into a system, a prototype is built, congressional funding is achieved for a first article, proceeded by low volume production, whatever SOTA parts designed -in on the system are a minimum of two generations behind and many already obsolete.

Back in the 1980’s, when electronic gadgets did not exist, the DOD drove demand for microelectronic content, so semiconductor manufacturers catered to defense contractors. These applications were, and continue to be, low volume propositions compared to the tens of millions on the commercial side. Semiconductor manufactures by the dozens abandoned the low volume mil/space market to pursue high volume commercially driven consumer applications. Result, it was more cost effective to sub- contract the manufacturing overseas, mainly in Taiwan and China. In light of the trade war with China, along with Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, critical microelectronics utilized in weapons and space programs are now seen as vulnerable due to the actions and statements made by the Chinese Communist Party in the early stages of the pandemic.

This is a major reason why US policy must create an environment incentivizing private investment for manufacturing of SOTA, as well as state of the practice semiconductors onshore. The 2021 Defense Bill included the bipartisan American Foundries Act which is the first step in this effort.