USPAE Launches $42M DoD Consortium

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The I-Connect007 editorial team recently interviewed Chris Peters, Kevin Sweeney and Shane Whiteside, members of the U.S. Partnership for Assured Electronics (USPAE), about the award the association received from the Department of Defense to create the Defense Electronics Consortium. In this conversation, they discuss the objectives of the consortium, which was created to help the government identify and address potential risks in the electronics industry.

Nolan Johnson: Gentlemen, you released some news recently that USPAE received a large grant to establish a new consortium. Can you tell me about that?

Chris Peters: Certainly. We received a $42 million award from the Department of Defense to create the Defense Electronics Consortium and launch the lead-free initiative, which is its first project. The DEC is an Other Transaction Agreement, or OTA, that helps the government get access to an industry, especially non-traditional defense manufacturers, companies that haven’t worked with the DoD in recent years. One of the unique things about our award is that while most of those contracts focus on research and prototype actions, ours allows companies that are engaged in a prototype with the DoD to move right into production without having to go out for recompete. That is a significant difference for our award.

Chris_Peters_headshot.jpgJohnson: This Defense Electronics Consortium: you’ve just given us a sense for the mission. How do the consortium and the USPAE work together? How are they connected?

Peters: USPAE is a nonprofit industry association really focused on helping increase the global competitiveness of the U.S. electronics industry, to help ensure that the U.S. government has access to trusted and assured electronic supply chains. We are the recipient of that award from the Department of Defense. USPAE is the manager of this Defense Electronics Consortium.

Johnson: What do you see as the primary drivers for creating this consortium?

Peters: It’s been a challenge for the government, especially the DoD for a while, to have an understanding of the industrial base, especially with electronics. Electronics are very complex, the supply chain especially is diverse, and it’s not very visible to the DoD. One element of the consortium is to give the government greater access to the industry, to help identify and address risks and gaps. That way, the DoD has greater access to the electronics industry and greater assurance that industry will be there when needed.

Johnson: That is something that we’ve found to be very real here in the last 12 to 18 months, haven’t we?

Peters: That’s exactly right. The COVID crisis was a wakeup call. When we could not ramp up production of ventilators in this country because most of the printed circuit boards came from outside our country, that was a wake-up call. Within the DoD and other government agencies, it really started to raise the question, “Wait a minute, where do our printed circuit boards come from that we use for our weapons and communication systems? The bottom line is, in a lot of cases, we don’t know.” It’s raised awareness of the need to know where everything in the supply chain is coming from and where there might be risks that would impact us like the COVID crisis.

Dan Feinberg: I have a question about the lead-free initiative. We all know that there are some applications where leaded solder, for example, is superior due to reliability. There are other things that are important, but are you seeing lead as a possibility again where reliability is extremely important?

Shane_Whiteside.jpgShane Whiteside: I think it’s understood, Dan, or it’s becoming more widely understood, that lead does have a place, particularly for tin whisker mitigation and extreme environments. But will there be a supply chain availability of leaded components? I believe that’s the current state of affairs with components right now.

Peters: Keep in mind, too, that the rest of the world, by and large, has gone to unleaded. What happens if we have an F-35 that lands in a country that does not allow any work on leaded electronics, but the jet needs some maintenance? Will we be denied the ability to maintain that aircraft in that country because it has leaded electronics? That’s just one example of many risks we face. Another is that fewer and fewer companies are re-balling and putting lead on electronics. The reliance on leaded electronics also keeps the DoD from taking advantage of the latest technology. If the commercial world is lead-free, and we can’t take advantage of that because we have to rely on lead, that impacts technology refresh rates and availability for the DoD.

Feinberg: About four or five years ago, I was in a conversation with some guys involved in similar manufacturing for defense, and it was the first time that I had heard this warning. They said they had determined that some circuit boards for defense devices were found to have hidden components on them. Is this a continuation of that discussion? Does that have anything to do with this right now?

Peters: There was an article several years ago in Bloomberg about an unexpected component being inserted on boards, and it’s been a concern within the DoD that a bad actor could insert something onto a printed circuit board that could essentially put a kill switch on a satellite. I envision that some DEC projects will help address this issue, but I’m not sure that the lead-free initiative addresses it directly.

Kevin Sweeney: Dan, it’s a continuation of a long-term concern that particularly the DoD—but I would say the federal government in general—has had for many years, both at the classified and unclassified levels. The risks associated with bad actors and, let’s face it, we’re primarily talking about one major country—China—that was stealing intellectual property, potentially corrupting databases, replicating, counterfeiting, and so forth. The vulnerabilities are pretty significant, and they are a national security risk. But up to this point, I would suggest that many OEMs, many of the large defense contractors looked at this as one cost of business and the cost of doing business with government. They’ll absorb it.


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