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Semiconductors, minerals: Supply chain review to cover key military tech

WASHINGTON — A new review ordered by President Joe Biden will improve understanding of risks posed by supply chains for semiconductors and other critical military and national security technologies made heavily in China.

Rare earth elements and high-capability batteries are examples of other vital products for war fighting that will get a closer look under the executive order signed Wednesday, part of the government’s push to ensure its goods and weapons system are secure from adversaries.

The secretary of defense has 100 days to review the supply chain for critical minerals, core pieces of fighter jets and satellites, and the secretary of commerce will review the market for semiconductors that are foundational to artificial intelligence, 5G and quantum computing.

U.S. development of those capabilities would be hampered if those supply chains are disrupted, putting the military behind its adversaries.

Semiconductors are “a foundational technology,” said Melissa Griffith, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center. “That makes it a chokepoint for other technologies that we really are concerned about like 5G networks, 5G devices, artificial intelligence, quantum computing. That makes it a chokepoint, that makes it a single point of failure.”

Each report must review defense-related risks from a disruption or elimination of a supply chain, or from a lack of production domestically. Griffith said that she hopes the report addresses what policy levers and opportunities the U.S. has to “reshape and alter global supply chains.”

“Even if the only thing we accomplish is a really nuanced understanding and a state of play [of] the United States’ globally and where we occupy positions of power, maybe where we occupy areas of potential growth for ourselves and our allied partner countries ... that foundational knowledge will be significant for us in terms of our ability to address this problem,” Griffith said.

“This executive order hopefully will be a bit of a watershed moment,” she said.

Rare earth elements, meanwhile, are another area dominated by the Chinese, but the Pentagon is trying to boost domestic production. Jeffrey Green, president of J.A. Green & Co., a government relations firm that works with the defense industry, said that the order builds on previous progress from the Trump administration on rare earth elements.

“It sets it up very nicely for a year or year and a half from now to make some very targeted investment in critical supply chains,” Green said.

In one year, the secretary of defense also must submit a report on the defense industrial base’s supply chains and where they might be vulnerable. The report, part of six sector-specific, year-long reviews, will identify “where civilian supply chains are dependent upon competitor nations.”

“These reviews will identify policy recommendations to [fortify] our supply chains, to — it should be to fortify our supply chains at every step, and critically, to start implementing those recommendations right away,” Biden said. “We’re not going to wait for a review to be completed before we start closing the existing gaps.”

The order also requires a report on the information and communications technology supply chain, particularly important in the aftermath of a massive supply chain hack of the federal government through a third party IT provider.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers met with Biden at the White House on Wednesday to discuss supply chain threats. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in a statement that the U.S. must take steps to counter China’s semiconductor dominance.

The “Executive Order is a good first start but much more work remains to be done — and quickly — including fully funding a number of enacted bills related to promoting supply chain security, resiliency and greater American competitiveness in key foundation technologies like semiconductors and wireless infrastructure,” said Warner, who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, went a step further, writing a letter with Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware urging Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act for domestic semiconductor production.

“The U.S. was once the world leader in semiconductor manufacturing, but our position has since significantly eroded compared to international competitors,” the senators wrote. “While the U.S. still maintains an advantage in semiconductor design, we have lost significant ground in semiconductor manufacturing. This loss has placed us in a precarious position, in which U.S. companies are faced with the prospects of relying on foreign suppliers to produce critical national security assets.”

In recent congressional testimony, Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and current chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, warned lawmakers that the United States’ dependence of Taiwan for semiconductor manufacturing creates “strategic vulnerability from adverse foreign government action, natural disaster, and other events that can disrupt the supply chains for electronics.”

The U.S. must commit to a strategy of staying “at least” two generations ahead of China in microelectronics, while funding and incentivizing domestic microelectronics development, he said. The Department of Defense has two efforts underway for microelectronics supply chain security, the Rapid Assured Microelectronics Prototypes and the State-of-the-Art Heterogeneous Integration Prototype Program.

Attention to China’s dominance in the global market for core technologies like semiconductors is growing on Capitol Hill. Biden’s order came just a day after Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would direct Senate Democrats to draft bipartisan legislation directing investment in technologies needed to counter China.

Griffith also said the fact that Biden addressed all these core technologies in a single executive order is an important signal.

“There’s a recognition by the Biden administration in putting this out that this is an ecosystem of related technologies and supply chains that are all critical to our economy and national security,” she said. “We need to be thinking about them collectively as a national security issue even though the dynamics of each of those supply chains, their resilience, their security will be different.”

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