Senate Begins Investigation Into Counterfeit Parts in DoD Weapons

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.

  • Marcase

    Fake or counterfeit parts is nothing new in the aerospace, and even automobile industry.
    And defense departments/ministries are always looking for ways to cut costs, so buying not-so-illegal ‘sub’ parts via dodgy subcontractors has a long history.

  • Tony C

    Sounds like China has a back door to defeat US weapon systems. The issue of fake parts is an old one, expecially when the DOD dumped the military specifications and encouraged teh use of COTS items to reduce costs. The military specifications were originally enacted to prevent non-conforming material from getting in to the US military inventory. What comes around goes around, so expect a new generation of military specifications to become active.

  • Oblat

    It’s a well known problem in any industry that delivers low value for money. If the original manufacturers are more competitive the problem goes away.

  • Cortland

    COTS poses an even more insidious problem; technologies change so fast, and manufacturers move so quickly to newer ones, that continued availability of parts may be threatened, with spares unavailable well before end of life for systems that need them. Anyone got a new 20 meg Seagate? DIP memory? Thought not!

  • Stephen Russell

    Problems is QA & Project long range time usage IE failing parts=more shop time less Combat time.

  • RDT&E

    Some F-16s have been flying since 1977. Where is a repair contractor going to find the electrical components to repair avionics boxes that are 34 years old? The only way ensure reliability of repaired items is to perform rigorous environmental stress screening, cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_stress…

    • blight

      ESS is essentially what Ikea says they do to those mockup chairs that are being rocked or “sat on” by that mechanical weight.

      All parts grow old eventually, or else we’d still be on vacuum tubes. It’s quite challenging to design equipment that plugs into older equipment without a total gutting for millions per aircraft…

  • neverenoughammo

    Good morning

    Why stop at aircraft parts. how about something more basic..small arms. The after market small arms parts from my experience causes more than 60% of the weapons failures. Whether its the magazines or the extractors the use of these parts is unsafe and inefficent.

  • joe

    Many repair shops have a vendor come in an fill common hardware bins. Guess what, that hardware may or may not have gone through the same testing. If those are considered counterfeit, then just about every ground vehicle has counterfeit parts.

  • CavScout62

    Having the U.S. Senate “Investigate” anything is like putting the fox in the henhouse. Put the Army CID and the Navy NCIS units on this and get some ral results!

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