After years of reports on the matter, the U.S. Senate is investigating the thousands of fake parts that seep into U.S. weapons systems every year. This is a pretty significant issue that the Pentagon has begun to investigate over the last couple of years. A fake part can be a safety risk due to a lack of quality control or could even carry malware designed to spy on or disrupt U.S. weapons.
From my old boss at Inside the Air Force, Marcus Weisgerber who is now at Defense News:
“The presence of counterfeit electronic parts in the Defense Department’s supply chain is a growing problem that government and industry share a common interest in solving,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Ranking Member John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a joint statement today. “Over the course of our investigation, the committee looks forward to the cooperation of the Department of Defense and the defense industry to help us determine the source and extent of this problem and identify possible remedies for it.”
Counterfeit parts are a pretty serious issue. Critical components like aircraft fasteners or wiring harnesses that aren’t built to spec can fail with potentially disastrous consequences. Here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2008 at Inside the Air Force detailing the safety risks and financial consequences of fake parts:
This practice is an unintended consequence of two converging trends: globalization and Defense Department acquisition policies instituted in the 1990s that encourage use of commercial-off-the-shelf technology, according to Robert Ernst, head of aging aircraft studies for the Navy.
“ This is one of the emerging threats to our supply chain. It’s one of the things we call a disruptive technology, ” said Ernst during a March 20 interview. “ We’re getting so many changes, because we’re in a global economy, we have to manage things a little bit differently, and it really is turning our acquisition process and supply process on its ear.”
Ernst — along with several other military safety officials who wished to remain anonymous — worries that the potential of fake parts in the inventory is so high that some aircraft may contain numerous counterfeit parts, ranging from microprocessors to fasteners.
This, they argue, opens the door for disaster since military parts must be able to withstand shock, vibration, electromagnetic and temperature stress levels far greater than their commercial counterparts.
“If you get a flood of counterfeits going in, if you have multiple failures on an old weapons system with poor reliability, it doesn’ t take a lot of ‘what ifs’ to have a serious reliability — and possibly a safety-impact,” said Ernst. “If I have a part that gets into a weapon system that not only doesn’ t work, but fails prematurely or it has adverse impact, then that’s a safety issue and I really get upset,” he added.
Ernst estimates that such components are leading to a 5 percent to 15 percent annual decrease in weapon system reliability based on studies by the Aerospace Industries Association.
“I know the Navy spends about $1.4 billion a year on depot level repairables. A 10 percent increase. That’s a big chunk of change,” said Ernst.