Reading time ( words)
Last week a friend of mine sent me this excerpt from the Congressional Record. Yes, that congressional record. If this doesn’t set your hair on fire, then nothing will.
From the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018:
Executive agent for printed circuit board technology
The committee is aware of ongoing efforts through the Department of Defense Executive Agent for Printed Circuit Board Technology (PrCB EA) to develop and execute a strategy to address the declining printed circuit board industrial base and gaps identified in the 2015 Department of Defense Executive Agent for Printed Circuit Board and Interconnect Technology Roadmap. According to a PrCB EA industrial base capability assessment, between 1980 and 2014, the printed circuit board manufacturing base declined 86 percent, from over 2,000 manufacturers to just 280. The committee is concerned that what remains of the U.S. printed circuit board industrial base is becoming less capable of sustaining the superiority of Department of Defense systems and growing increasingly dependent on foreign suppliers, particularly China. This poses a risk to the Defense supply chain in terms of the quality and trustworthiness of the products it acquires. The committee supports continued execution of PrCB EA functions addressing trust, supply chain, organic capability, and research activities, including the continued development of a network of trusted suppliers and leveraging the DoD Trusted Supplier Program to include PrCB designers, manufacturers, and electronic assemblers.
So, they finally get it. Now they realize they should not have let those contract manufacturers play fast and loose with ITAR requirements, sending a lot of their defense and aerospace printed circuit boards to Asia to be built. Maybe those defense contractors should have thought twice before demanding that all the components in their critical-mission products be the cheapest that money could buy regardless of national security. Maybe the U.S. government should have protected the PCB industry instead of letting them sink or swim. Maybe someone should have realized that it never was a level playing field, because our shops were competing with Chinese and Japanese government-supported board shops. And yes, maybe they should have held those defense contractors more accountable when it came to where they were sourcing their components.
Sure, I know that this is capitalism and we believe in the free market. I also realize and support the idea that commercial products from garage door openers to Blu-Ray players should probably be built offshore. That is just a product of a flat-world global economy. But mission-critical defense products…are you kidding me?
For years, the largest CMs and OEMs have been giving the DoD one specious argument after another for why they should buy their PCBs offshore. At first it was the line of bull that the PCB was too low on the technology supply chain to be an ITAR-protected product. And when IPC finally convinced them that this was incorrect and that we should be on the ITAR list, those same companies told the DoD there were no longer enough qualified U.S. PCB suppliers to meet their needs (thanks to them, by the way), these CMs and OEMs were going to have to go offshore to meet their DoD component requirements. Thanks, guys!
Not that the State Department has been much help over the years. On one hand, they hold our feet to the fire in terms of secrecy and the much needed ITAR protection, while on the other hand, they sell their completed defense products—ITAR-protected circuit boards and all—to our frenemies, whomever they may be. By the way, care to guess who our largest arms customer is? Iraq! Yes, they are number one! And our latest arms customer, coming in at number three, is Saudi Arabia, the true founders of 9/11!
All I can say is that it is not too late for our defense and aerospace contractors to act more like Americans than capitalists and protect our technology and our industry with the same enthusiasm that they protect our borders. They need to stop buying mission-critical electronics from offshore companies. They need to stop trying to squeeze every dollar out of our remaining board shops and they need to start truly partnering with those shops, helping them to stay alive.
And the State Department? Well, they need to stop selling our proprietary national security weaponry to the highest bidder regardless of their status as friend or foe. Oh, and one last thing. Stop blaming the shops for not keeping up; the playing field has never been level for them. They have been fighting an uphill battle for years, with no help from the parties mentioned above. It’s time to cut them a break; hell, it’s time to cut the USA a break and keep our weapons here in the USA, protecting US citizens.
It’s only common sense.