The United States has made significant progress toward regaining its preeminence in the single most important technology that underpins American life today: semiconductors.
The CHIPS and Science Act will eventually reshore some of the semiconductor production capacity that now sits abroad, and sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States in October will slow China’s ambitions to develop leading-edge chips. Yet when it comes to ensuring the U.S. military has uninterrupted access to a wide spectrum of chips that power virtually every offensive and defensive system, there are near- and long-term challenges to address.
Pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions have been a catalyst for our nation’s renewed focus on semiconductor access, but the challenges we face are 60 years in the making.
The U.S. government bought almost all the early integrated circuits made in the 1960s, but now accounts for just a small fraction of global semiconductor sales. The Defense Department was once the driving force behind semiconductor research and development and production, but its requirements now take a backseat to larger customers. As Chris Miller notes in his book Chip War, “as a buyer of chips, Apple CEO Tim Cook has more influence on the industry than any Pentagon official today.”
Yet the Defense Department’s reliance on state-of-the-art and commodity chips continues to grow. Electronic content on military platforms is doubling with each hardware generation, the amount of data collected and processed by sensors and systems is growing exponentially and our military doctrine is increasingly predicated on integrated command and control of a secure, connected battlespace. In other words, as Miller observes, “the future of war will be defined by computing power.”
The geopolitical environment the United States faces today is unquestionably more challenging than any of us have seen in our lifetimes.
Between the threat Russia poses to Ukraine and, more broadly, Europe, and the tightening technological race with China, the ability to rapidly produce superior military hardware is paramount. But U.S. industry today remains hamstrung by supply chain disruptions for many critical components.
Though the availability of consumer-grade chips has recently swung toward an oversupply, the high-end semiconductors used in platforms like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Patriot missile system remain severely delayed. Historical lead times of 10 to 12 weeks have ballooned to an astronomical 36 to 99 weeks, with no relief in sight.
Further, we have ceded much of the low-end semiconductor market to China, and we face obsolescence issues as defense systems are upgraded too slowly and older chips phase out of production.
This environment presents multiple challenges across industry and time horizons, none of which can be solved overnight. But our national security hinges on implementing a holistic strategy that further domesticates more of the semiconductor supply chain, ensures defense applications have prioritized access to chips, accelerates defense modernization and expands the skilled workforce needed to produce, package and integrate these key components. The White House, Congress and the Defense Department should work together to find solutions in several key focus areas.
First, the United States must bolster semiconductor access for the aerospace and defense industry. Through policy, executive order or legislation, the Defense Department should gain early access to existing high-end semiconductor capacity.
As the U.S. government allocates capital to the semiconductor industry through CHIPS Act funding, it should ensure key industries like defense, automotive and aviation are prioritized. And while the CHIPS Act is primarily focused on production, the opportunity should not be missed to invest in secure domestic back-end packaging capabilities, a critical part of the supply chain almost entirely based in Asia.
For nearly seven decades, the tax code supported American innovation by allowing companies to fully deduct R&D expenses in the year they occurred. Since last year, those expenses have been required to be amortized over a period of years, chilling U.S. commercial investment. Congress should correct this misstep.
Second, we must significantly accelerate defense production and modernization and move the U.S. defense industrial base from a “just enough, just in time” model to one that matches the scale of the threat we face. We need more hot production lines, operating at capacities far beyond what we’ve deemed acceptable through the peace dividend era.
We need flexible contracting approaches that embrace multi-year contracts and priority ratings. And we need faster, less cumbersome technology insertion programs that take advantage of open standards and leading-edge commercial technologies.
Finally, we must address the gaps in our defense industrial base workforce by focusing on specialized labor and engineering talent development. Defense manufacturing struggles with a limited pool of workers with the needed knowledge and skills.
While automation has helped, a skilled workforce remains the lifeblood of our industry, and the necessary experience is built up over years. We need to attract more smart, hard-working Americans to national security career fields and bring in more talent from abroad, as the international labor pipeline was further disrupted by the pandemic.
The exact contours of the conflicts we may face in the next era are unknown, but the United States must be prepared to win. It must take these steps to ensure our military readiness and technological dominance.
Mark Aslett is chief executive of Mercury Systems, a U.S. technology company that supplies components and subsystems to aerospace and defense platforms.