WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense wants to create a network of regional hubs to mature microelectronics technology and manufacturing processes and strengthen the domestic industrial base.

In a new request for information released Thursday, the department asks industry, academia, government labs and domestic semiconductor manufacturers for input on its Microelectronic Commons concept, which originated with a cross-functional team led by Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu.

“To supplement substantial U.S. investments in disruptive research and development, DoD must establish and facilitate a national network of academic and small business research entities by reducing barriers and [enhancing] existing infrastructure,” the department said in a news release Friday.

The Department of Defense requested approximately $2.3 billion in fiscal 2022 for various efforts to ensure it has access to a diverse microelectronics ecosystem, which is critical for many military systems. A new Pentagon report, also released Thursday, lists microelectronics as one of four supply chain focus areas along with kinetic capabilities, which includes hypersonic technology; energy storage and batteries; and castings and forgings.

The report notes that while many of DoD’s systems rely on legacy microelectronics capabilities, innovation in this area is “a primary differentiator for asymmetric technology advantage over potential adversaries.”

Today, 88% of microelectronics production capacity and 98% of the associated assembly, packaging and testing occurs outside the U.S., mostly in Taiwan, South Korea and China. As of 2020, the U.S. share was at 12%, down from 37% in 1990, according to the report.

“The migration of semiconductor manufacturing to the Asia-Pacific region, and the subsequent decline in domestic manufacturing, represents a substantive security and economic threat for the United States and many allied nations,” the report states. “Onshoring production, packaging and testing capability will be challenging and expensive, but it would help mitigate national security threats.”

COVID-19 exacerbated concerns around domestic suppliers, particularly for radiation-hardened microelectronics.

The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act directed the department to establish a national network for microelectronics research and development with the goal of supporting the “laboratory-to-fabrication transition” of microelectronics innovation and expanding U.S. leadership within the industrial base.

The Microelectronics Commons would address a portion of that congressional directive, supporting growth in the domestic industrial base and developing new research and methods to improve microelectronics manufacturing. The regional hubs, located throughout the country, would be established through public-private partnerships and would focus on identifying dual-use technology advances — like new device and circuit concepts — that could be matured through the commons.

“These enhanced manufacturing capabilities could allow cost-effective ways to capture and incentivize domestic research and development and provide a low-volume production environment for a high mix of technologies as they are incubated and nurtured for DoD and commercial market applications,” the DoD release states.

Funding from the partnerships would pay for specialized lab equipment, technical expertise and connections to prototyping facilities that could be used to mature new technology, according to the RFI, which notes that a lack of facilities and equipment is a barrier to startup companies looking to enter the market.

“As a result, the number of U.S. hardware startups has dropped significantly and foreign investment in U.S.-based technology startups has enabled offshore fabrication and maturation of emerging technologies,” the RFI states.

Outside of the new commons, the department is pursuing several other initiatives to strengthen the domestic ecosystem, including a trusted and assured microelectronics program that uses commercial technology to increase DoD’s access to advanced microelectronics. The RFI notes this particular effort has already helped the department develop and transition some state-of-the-art technologies through partnerships with commercial vendors.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.

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