It’s Only Common Sense: Mission-Critical Confusion


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Let me start by saying I’m a big fan of ITAR. I believe that we should have protection for defense and aerospace products being built by American companies and American citizens. It is good for the PCB and PCBA industry. I don’t like the idea of these mission-critical products being built elsewhere. The dangers of this were particularly evident when, during the pandemic, we could not even build our own respirators without relying on overseas suppliers. But alas, sometimes it really does not make much sense.

And what about the term American? Aren’t Canadians Americans, technically? When did the U.S. claim that title for itself? That’s just a side note and not really the purpose of this column, but I cannot help adding that it is silly that Canadians cannot work in U.S. factories without a great deal of bureaucratic hubbub.

Now, regarding ITAR, we should have rules likes this to help our own industries, but what about the secrecy stuff? What about protecting our defense, aerospace, and national security intellectual property? Does that really matter? I think that it should, but does our government think so?

Here is what I mean: While we are twisting ourselves in knots to make sure that one of our enemies does not get their hands on the layout of a multi-layer board going into a critical system in a Blackhawk helicopter, we leave a bunch of them behind when we evacuate a country like we just did in Afghanistan. I heard some TV pundit say that Afghanistan now has the world’s third-largest collection of Blackhawks (don’t quote me on that, I heard it on TV, so…). But I am sure we did leave a good amount of them behind, as we have done after other wars. Kind of makes you feel silly to be so careful with the data of that six-layer board, doesn’t it?

Worse yet, while I understand that sometimes you must leave a country in a hurry, so fast that you don’t have time to pack and ship your stuff home, what about when we actually give, or rather sellour mission-critical, highly secret, highly proprietary weapons to other countries because we like them that year? Then, a few years later when we are no longer friends, they are using these weapons against us? Does it make sense that we so carefully make sure that no Canadian is touching the data for a defense and aerospace double sided board in a PCB shop in California?

Sometimes all of this reminds me of the Spy vs Spy cartoon in Mad Magazine. Sometimes it is as funny as that strip. For example, did you know that technology for the stealth bomber came from Russia, or more accurately, the USSR? And that we did not even steal it? Nope, they gave it to us just for the asking. That’s right. Years ago, at Lockheed’s Skunk Works in southern California (a place so secret that the CEO of Lockheed did not have the right clearance to enter the building) one member of the R&D team found a paper by a Soviet scientist that showed how, with this new technology that the Soviets hand developed, you could make anything fly—you could even make a desk fly. So, the Americans got on the phone, called the Soviets, and asked if they could use their technology. The Soviets not only agreed to let Lockheed use the technology; they sent them all of the information that they had on the subject. That’s a true story right from both Kelly Johnson’s and Ben Rich’s memoirs about working at Lockheed’s Skunk Works.

All this makes me wonder about who exactly the “enemy” is, in the end. If you spend any time studying The Manhattan Project, where “America” developed the first atomic bomb, you very quickly learn that scientists from all over the world, including Germans by the way, were working on a collaborative effort to develop that bomb. Read Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb to get the whole story.

Or read about our space program, as described in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, where the true “Rocket Men” were Wernher Von Braun and his band of merry Germans with, shall we say, ahem, a questionable past. They were the guys who really put us into space and got us to the moon.

Oh, and one more thing about the space program: I’m sure you know that until recently, when NASA was sending our astronauts to work at the Space Station, they were hitching a ride on a Russian rocket ship.

Now you can see why I’m confused. Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? To whom should we sell our weapons? And back to ITAR, it’s a good thing that the Manhattan Project, or the early space program at Redstone, did not have ITAR, right? That could have been a problem. Just saying.

It’s only common sense.

Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.

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