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Can DNA technology thwart military supply chain threats?

The issue of counterfeit parts in military equipment isn't new – and it isn't going away.

As far back as 2012 Senate Armed Services Committee investigation found 1,800 incidents of counterfeit electronic parts in defense equipment. Yet a 2016 report the Government Accountability Office report states that the Defense Department supply chain still is "vulnerable to the risk of counterfeit parts, which have the potential to delay missions and ultimately endanger service members."

This fall the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) threw its weight behind an emerging solution, one that uses plant-based deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. to create unique identifying markers on electronics and a range of other military parts.

The November contract deepens DLA's seven-year relationship with Applied DNA Sciences (APDN). It tasks the company with applying its unique identifier to a range of products across the supply chain, including not just electrical components but also pipes, tubes, bearings and engine accessories.

This follows on a pair of 2014 awards, including a $2.97 million DLA contract and a $975,000 Small Business Innovation Research project with the Missile Defense Agency.

Military planners have struggled to stem what many characterize as a flood of counterfeit parts infiltrating the supply chain from China and elsewhere. They are concerned that fake parts won't perform as specified, and in the case of technology components, some worry that counterfeit parts could be used to spy on U.S. assets or introduce malicious code into military systems.

DNA materials derived from plants offer a possible solution.

The basic coding mechanism of life, DNA by its nature is dense with information. "The amount of content that DNA uses is incredible," said Janice Meraglia, vice president of government and military programs for Applied DNA Sciences. "That's why when DNA is introduced in court cases it tends to be very open and closed, because DNA evidence is virtually irrefutable. You don't get false positives. So we take the strength of that content and use that to our advantage."

APDN effectively chops up strands of plant DNA and recombines them to form a uniquely recognizable, encrypted pattern. This genetic-based material can then be incorporated into inks that are printed on labels. It can be blended into the base materials that form components such as O-rings, or it can be swirled into lubricating oils that coat bearings and other parts.

By its nature, the DNA marker is discrete: It attaches to the manufacturing process without getting in the way. "You can use a very small amount and incorporate it into or onto items in parts per billion, so we are not disrupting the form, fit or function of anything we work with," Meraglia said.

Government leaders in the anti-counterfeit effort say they see promise in the technology.

"We're encouraged by the work being done in the private sector, and hope it will ultimately lead to more effective and efficient [intellectual property] enforcement," said Bruce Foucart, director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Innovative anti-counterfeiting technology has a major role in protecting the government supply chain and shielding consumers from fake goods that present significant health and safety hazards," he said.

APDN established its foothold in the military space in 2011, when DLA set up a red-team challenge wherein scientists from Battelle Laboratories tried and failed to spoof the DNA mark.

"It's very difficult to counterfeit or fake," said Tom Bergman, program manager, cyber innovations at Battelle Laboratories. He noted that given the high motivation level among parts-pirates, the government does well to seek out aggressive new strategies. "Someone who wants to counterfeit a device will learn what you are looking for and they will tune their process. That's why you need something new and groundbreaking to approach the whole problem."

APDN has said that its strategy could potentially change the stakes of the game, by reversing the typical approach government has taken to thwart counterfeiting.

"Very often when we are looking at counterfeits and supply chain issues, everyone is focused on detecting the fake, on finding the bad item," Meraglia said.

The DNA approach flips the paradigm. "We are more along the lines of ensuring authenticity and establishing provenance," she said. "It's a more proactive approach. Now instead of letting the bad actors establish the field of engagement, we are doing that. Now they have to try to defeat us."

Once applied to the part or product, the DNA can be used in one of two ways – either to validate or to authenticate.

Validation is a quick process: A proprietary lighting mechanism is aimed at the item in question, causing the DNA mark to fluoresce, if it is present.

Authentication is a more detailed process, involving scientific examination of the DNA. It's a way of ensuring that the piece not only is marked with DNA, but is in fact exactly what it claims to be.

Right now APDN has to do that part, but the company says it is developing tools that would allow some customers to do their own authentication on site. "Everyone wants immediate results and immediate satisfaction," Meraglia said. "There are some applications where that in-field reading is more user friendly and we have been working on that constantly, just because there is always this need for speed."

A number of other technologies also are under development that take a microscopic-level approach to generating unique identifiers, said Jon Boyens, project manager for the cyber supply chain risk management program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He pointed to Defense Department efforts to create an electronically readable microdot with encrypted identification data, as well as research into "nanotubes," nanometer-scale, tube-like structures, "each one with its own design, almost like a snowflake."

While techniques such as these hold some promise, Boyens said, they would have to be implemented with care.

"Where is the DNA applied? Where in the supply chain do you put it on? It needs to be inserted very early. When you buy from an original component manufacturer or an original equipment manufacturer, there should be some guarantee that what you are buying is authentic," he said.

In addition, end users of these marks will have to invest in training in order to reap the full benefit. "It's only useful if you have employees who know where to look for it and how to use the equipment," he said.

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