Huge numbers of counterfeit Chinese electronics have entered the global aerospace supply chain with over one million believed to have be in use on US military aircraft.
The finding comes following a year long investigation by the US Senate Armed Services Committee which uncovered 1,800 cases of bogus parts, including on the US Air Force’s largest cargo plane, special operations helicopters and Navy surveillance planes.
The report revealed failures by defense contractors and the Department of Defence to report counterfeit parts and exposed a defense supply chain that relies on hundreds of unvetted independent distributors to supply electronic parts for some of our most sensitive defence systems.
‘The failure of a single electronic part can leave a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine vulnerable at the worst possible time,’ the report said.
The Committee tracked well over 100 of the approximately 1,800 cases of suspect counterfeit parts back through the supply chain with more than 70% of the suspect parts being traced to China. The 112-page report “outlines how this flood of counterfeit parts, overwhelmingly from China, threatens national security, the safety of our troops and American jobs,” said Democratic chairman Carl Levin. “It underscores China’s failure to police the blatant market in counterfeit parts – a failure China should rectify.”
The report also said the Chinese government denied visas to committee staff to travel to the Asian giant as part of the committee’s probe, with a Chinese embassy official saying the issue was sensitive and that a negative report could end up “damaging” US-China relations.
‘Counterfeit electronic parts are sold openly in public markets in China,’ the report said. ‘Rather than acknowledging the problem and moving aggressively to shut down counterfeiters, the Chinese government has tried to avoid scrutiny.’
How these findings reflect the incidents of counterfeit parts on commercial aircraft is currently unclear but industry experts concede it is cause for alarm.
In a statement, aircraft manufacturer Boeing said: “Boeing and the entire aerospace industry set high standards for the safety, quality and reliability of civilian and defense products. Boeing has worked for years to improve its internal processes and policies to protect against counterfeit and non-conforming parts and has strengthened the contractual requirements with our suppliers. At the same time, we have worked with aerospace industry groups, the U.S. Department of Defense and Congress to improve methods of addressing counterfeit electronic parts through legislative action, DoD and FAA regulatory initiatives and industry-wide standards.”
Below is a breakdown from Defence Professionals of the suspected counterfeit parts found on three of the US military’s aircraft.
Navy P-8A Poseidon
The P-8A Poseidon is a Boeing 737 commercial airplane modified to incorporate antisubmarine and anti—surface warfare capabilities. As of October 2011, three P-8A flight test aircraft were in test at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, Maryland and the Navy intends to purchase 117 of the aircraft from Boeing.
On August 17, 2011, Boeing sent a message marked “Critical” to the Navy. The message said that an ice detection module installed on a P-8A test aircraft contained a “reworked part that should not have been put on the airplane originally and should be replaced immediately.”
Boeing had first identified a problem with the part in December 2009 when an ice detection module failed on the company’s flight line. In that case, the suspect part had literally fallen out of its socket and was found rattling around inside the module. An investigation by BAE Systems, which manufactures the module for Boeing, discovered that the part, and hundreds of others from the same lot, was a previously used part made to appear new. While BAE notified Boeing about the suspect parts in January 2010, it took Boeing more than a year and a half to notify the Navy.
BAE purchased the suspect parts from a company called Tandex Test Labs in California. Tandex, it turns out, failed to test most of the parts before selling them to BAE. The company had bought the parts from an independent distributor in Florida who, the Committee discovered, purchased them from an affiliate of A Access Electronics in Shenzhen, China.
U.S. Navy SH-60B Helicopter
The SH-60B is a Navy helicopter that conducts anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, surveillance and targeting support. The SH-60B deploys on Navy cruisers, destroyers, and frigates and has a Forward Looking InfraRed or “FLIR” System which provides night vision capability. The FLIR also contains a laser used for targeting the SH-60B’s Hellfire missiles. On September 8, 2011 the Raytheon Company alerted the U.S. Naval Supply Systems Command that electronic parts suspected to be counterfeit had been installed on three Electromagnetic Interference Filters (EIF) integrated into FLIR units delivered by Raytheon.
While stating that the FLIR system is not “flight safety critical,” the Navy has said that the failure of an EIF could cause the FLIR to fail and an SH-60B cannot conduct surface warfare missions involving its Hellfire missiles without a functioning FLIR. A FLIR failure would also compromise the pilot’s ability to avoid hazards and identify targets at night, limiting the SH-60B’s ability to be deployed in night missions.
While three EIF that contained suspect parts were sold to Raytheon by a defense subcontractor in Texas, the Committee’s investigation traced the parts though a complex supply chain that spanned four states and three countries, originating with a company called Huajie Electronics Ltd. in Shenzhen, China.
U.S. Air Force C-130J and C-27J
The C-1301 and C-27J are military cargo planes equipped with display units that provide the pilot with information on the health of the airplane, including engine status, fuel use, location, and warning messages. The display units are manufactured by L-3 Display Systems, a division of L-3 Communications. For the C-1301, L-3 Display Systems manufactures the display
units for Lockheed Martin, the military’s prime contractor for the C-l30J. For the C-27J, L-3 Display Systems manufacturers the display units for Alenia Aeronautica (Alenia), a subcontractor to L-3 Integrated Systems, which is a separate division of L-3 Communications and the military’s prime contractor for the C-27J.
In November 2010, L-3 Display Systems learned that a memory chip used in display units was suspect counterfeit. By that time, however, the company had already installed parts from the suspect lot in more than 500 display units, including in units intended for the C-27J, the Air Force’s C-l30J and C-l7 aircraft, and the CH-46, a helicopter used by the Marine Corps.
Failure of the memory chip could cause a display unit to show a degraded image, lose data, or even go blank. L-3 Display Systems informed its customer, Alenia, shortly after it discovered the problem. However, neither L-3 nor Alenia alerted the Air Force that the C-27J s were affected by the suspect part until September 19, 2011, nearly a year after it had been discovered.
L-3 Display Systems bought the suspect memory chips from an electronics distributor in California. That distributor, in turn, bought the chips from Hong Dark Electronic Trade, a company in Shenzhen, China. In addition to the suspect memory chips, the Committee’s investigation revealed that in 2009 and 2010, L-3 Communications purchased tens of thousands of Hong Dark supplied electronic parts that entered the defense supply chain. According to the Air Force, “approximately 84,000 suspect counterfeit electronic parts purchased from Hong Dark entered the DOD supply chain, and many of these parts have been installed on DOD aircraft.”