WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to require the Pentagon in the upcoming defense policy bill to get a better handle on who sells the military critical technologies to reduce reliance Chinese-sourced products.
“The defense supply chain presents a national security risk: a significant amount of material in the Defense Industrial Base is sole-sourced from the People’s Republic of China,” a report release July 22 by the House Armed Services Committee’s Defense Critical Supply Chain Task Force stated.
The final report from the task force, formed in March, provided six recommendations for future statutory requirements to force the Pentagon to gain a better understanding of its supply chain and illuminate vulnerabilities and potential for shortages, specifically for semiconductors, rare earth elements needed for defense systems, pharmaceutical ingredients and energetic propellant for bullets or missiles. Lawmakers and experts alike fear that DoD systems made up of Chinese products introduces risk that the Chinese government could use backdoors to spy or sabotage weapons systems.
At an event at the Center for a New American Security, lawmakers stressed Thursday the need for the Pentagon to chart its supply chains and decried the department’s lack of understanding of risks from its suppliers.
“We’re now telling DoD that we need to do a better job of mapping supply chain,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., who co-chaired the task force with Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich. “That’s probably one of the simplest takeaways from this report. I would expect continued legislation from the Armed Services Committee that reinforces that message. My hope is that industry takes notice, starts to improve the tools with which they’re able to help DoD map the supply chain.”
The mapping recommendation was among five others that lawmakers want to insert into the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act to shore up the Pentagon’s global, complex supply chain and cut back on parts made in China. One recommendation stated that Congress should require the Pentagon to create a departmentwide risk assessment strategy and a system for continuous monitoring and correcting supply chain risks.
Another recommendation would require the department to “identify supplies and materials for major end items that come from adversarial nations and implement a plan to reduce reliance on those nations.”
“Just imagine that scenario played out, where we’re in a limited escalation with China, and they make all the propellant for our ammo,” Slotkin said. “I don’t think if we were missing the irony that we might not be able to engage if we needed to because they provide all the propellant. I don’t want our leaders to be prisoner to that kind of vulnerability, but you can’t fix that unless you know about vulnerability.”
The task force started a year into the COVID-19 pandemic that highlighted gaps in the U.S. supply chain for crucial personal protective equipment and other products.
“It is clear to us that failure to address our current cumbersome supply chain procedures will weaken American leaders’ ability to respond to strategic challenges,” the task force wrote. “A foreign adversary that can leverage supply chain vulnerabilities and divert decisionmakers’ attention from provocative acts, can also fundamentally impact the choices the United States makes in response to military escalation.”
The report advised legal mandates for DoD to work closer with industry and allies to use less Chinese and Russian suppliers, while also requiring the Pentagon to work with the departments of Energy and the Interior on research programs exploring alternative processes to extracting and processing rare earth minerals.
Another recommendation called for DoD to create a coalition of industry and education groups to provide workforce training across the country to build skilled manufacturing workforce domestically, a sector that’s been in decline for years.
The Pentagon should strengthen its partnerships within the National Technology and Industrial Base — a collection of research organizations across the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and Australia — and identify policy changes to use NTIB as “a test bed for closer international cooperation and supply chain resiliency,” the lawmakers wrote.
The report noted that allied nations “undoubtedly face similar challenges with over-reliance on Chinese and Russian suppliers.”
“If we are going to contemplate some form of selective economic and financial decoupling from China, which I think is now inevitable. The only way that works is that we simultaneously draw closer with our partners and our allies and collaborate on critical technologies,” Gallagher said.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.