02 Apr 2024 -
 Defence

US systems open to vulnerabilities via Chinese PCBs, warns former DoD expert

pcb inspection

The widespread use of Chinese-made printed circuit boards (PCBs) poses a critical threat to US military systems and essential infrastructure like the power grid, warns former DoD official Al Shaffer in EETimes. These seemingly innocuous components could contain hidden backdoors and kill switches, giving China devastating leverage in a conflict.

This dangerous situation stems from the decline of the US PCB industry, which now accounts for only 4% of global production, says Shaffer, who laments the missed opportunity in the CHIPS Act, which focuses on semiconductor manufacturing but neglects the PCBs onto which these chips are mounted. “We’re spending $50 billion… and then we’re going to go mount these things on primarily Chinese… PCBs,” he criticises.

The potential consequences are chilling. Shaffer outlines a scenario where China could remotely cripple critical US infrastructure, causing chaos and even compromising military systems. Underscoring the threat, he notes FBI director Christopher Wray’s recent warnings about China’s targeting of US infrastructure.

Shaffer advocates for a dramatic shift towards prioritising secure electronics throughout critical US systems. This would not only mitigate the security risk but also help revitalise domestic electronics manufacturing. However, this push needs to extend beyond the 2% market share currently held by the military.

Industry groups like the PCBAA are lobbying for government support through measures like the PCB Act, which would provide much-needed subsidies and tax credits to bolster the US industry. “The tax credit brings us into a cost-competitive position,” says PCBAA executive director David Schild, who emphasises the need for sustainable, market-driven solutions.

The extent of foreign PCB penetration in US systems remains unclear, a worrying fact highlighting the scale of the challenge. Shaffer’s stark message is that US reliance on low-cost foreign suppliers has come with an unacceptably high security price tag – a vulnerability that should be urgently addressed.

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