Senator Describes How Counterfeit Parts Can Become Part of Department of Defense Supply Chain

The US Department of Defense has concerns about counterfeit parts in its supply chain and is now taking additional steps to ensure that its equipment and parts are authentic.

According to the American Forces Press Service, the DOD has implemented a quality assurance process to identify material that doesn't conform to standards and determine which ones are counterfeit.

For the DOD, most of the problem appears to center on previously used parts sold as new. As Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) explains in a statement:

In some industries, the term "counterfeit" suggests an unauthorized fake, a knock-off of an original product. The definition of counterfeit, as it relates to electronic parts, which has been endorsed by the Department of Defense and defense contractors alike includes both fakes and previously used parts that are made to look new, and are sold as new. Previously used parts sold as new parts present a significant risk because, while they may pass initial screening, they are far more likely than new parts to exhibit reliability and performance problems later on when deployed in the field.

Sen. Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) which this year began an investigation of counterfeit electronic parts in the DOD supply chain. In his statement, made at a SASC hearing last week, he goes on to describe how e-waste is shipped into Chinese cities like Shantou in Guangdong Province where the electronics are disassembled by hand. Then, they undergo a sophisticated unsecured counterfeiting process. Again, from Sen. Levin:

Once they (electronic parts salvaged from e-waste) have been washed, parts may be sanded down to remove the existing part number, the date code (which tells you when a part was made), and other marks on the part that indicate its quality or performance. In a process known as "black topping," the tops of the parts may be recoated to hide sanding marks. State of the art printing equipment is used to put false markings on the parts, showing them to be new, of higher quality, faster speed, or able to withstand more extreme temperatures than those for which they were originally manufactured. When the process is complete, the parts are made to look brand new to the naked eye.

Once they have been through the counterfeiting process, the parts are packaged and shipped to Shenzhen or other cities to be sold in the markets or on the Internet.

Sen. Levin's statement also includes specific cases where counterfeit electronic parts that the Committee traced back to Chinese suppliers made their way into defense systems sold to the US military.

After the hearing, DOD Press Secretary George Little said the department is taking the issue "very seriously."

The Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Technology Evaluation has recommended several steps to inhibit the circulation of counterfeit electronics. I outlined these steps in an earlier post.

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