The US showcased its top-end F-35 fighter jet at a recent India aerospace exhibition. Image: US Air Force

The US is moving to secure the supply chain behind its premier F-35 fighter jet after discovering Chinese-made magnets in certain units, prompting security concerns if Beijing were to block access to the parts in a conflict situation.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that the US Department of Defense has started to use artificial intelligence (AI) to improve its scrutiny of whether aircraft parts, electronics and raw materials used by US defense contractors originate from China or other adversaries.

The WSJ report said that US defense contractors have been encouraged by the Pentagon and lawmakers to reduce their dependence on microelectronics and rare earth metals sourced from China.

This move comes after multiple media outlets reported that Lockheed Martin found Made in China cobalt and samarium alloys in magnets for the F-35’s turbomachine pumps.

Politico noted this month that turbomachine pumps combine an auxiliary power unit and an air cycle machine to provide power for main engine start, emergency power and compressed air for the thermal management system during ground maintenance.

US federal regulations implemented in late August ban the use of specialty metals and alloys from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia in US defense equipment.

The move may be only the tip of the iceberg. In an article for The Heritage Foundation this month, senior analyst Maiya Clark noted that the discovery of Made in China magnets inside one of the US’s premier fighter jets could cause a domino effect of production delays.

She noted that the impacted magnet supplier must stop work on that magnet, which means that the lube pump supplier must stop work while waiting for the magnets, resulting in Honeywell being unable to work on the F-35s turbomachines.

As a result, Lockheed Martin cannot assemble F-35s without turbomachine units. The delay could in time open significant capability gaps in achieving air superiority, degrade mission readiness and impact US allies’ capabilities. 

The F-35’s new integrated core processor will increase the aircraft’s processing power by an estimated 25 times using new-age microchips. Photo: Agencies

The sudden ban on Made in China components marks a shift from previous US policy on using such parts on the F-35. In 2014, Reuters reported that the US waived laws banning Made in China components for the F-35 to keep the billion-dollar fighter plane program on track, despite US officials voicing espionage concerns.

The Reuters report mentioned that the US authorized Northrop Grumman and Honeywell to use Made in China magnets for the F-35’s radars, landing gear and other hardware. Such a waiver was necessary to circumvent sanctions and ensure that the F-35 program remained on schedule, the report said.

True to Sun Tzu’s maxim, “winning without fighting is the acme of excellence,” China may potentially undermine US military supremacy using supply chain vulnerabilities in rare earth metals and microchips.

In terms of rare earth metals, a 2020 report by the US Congressional Research Service noted that in 2019 the US imported 100% of its rare earth metal supply, which includes samarium, a fact that it said has significant national security implications as China is the world’s largest producer of the metal.

Also, last month National Defense Magazine noted that China produces 80% of the world’s cobalt, a critical element for lithium-ion batteries, magnets for stealth technology and electronic warfare, and munitions. The report notes that China may not need to use its military to get what it wants with its decisive grip on the global supply of strategic materials and rare earth metals.

Made in China microchips are also finding their way into sensitive US applications. In a 2018 article for The National Interest, Michael Peck noted that 90% of the world’s circuit boards are printed in Asia, with half of them produced in China.

In a 2021 article in The Strategy Bridge, Evan Hanson noted that China is poised to lead global microchip and semiconductor production by 2030, limiting the pool of potential chip vendors that could support the production of US military equipment and weapons.

Hanson also points out that China’s substantial investments and global rollout of AI and 5G technologies have exacerbated supply chain vulnerabilities, enabled technology theft and exposed data on materials used in US and NATO weapons systems.

China’s preponderance in semiconductor manufacturing may allow spurious Chinese parts to find their way into US military supply chains, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

In 2017, WSJ reported that defective Chinese chips found their way into US Navy helicopters in 2011, a flaw that potentially prevented them from firing missiles. While the report noted that subsequent investigations concluded that the chips’ flaw was unintentional, the incident fits with China’s military strategy to counter the US through asymmetric means.

It also notes that wide-reaching and obscure supply chains make it almost impossible to verify the reliability and ultimate source for weapons-grade microchips, with critical functions such as intelligence-gathering and missile defense potentially compromised.

Apart from possibly producing defective chips, China may have already played a covert backdoor card at this glaring US vulnerability.

Conceptual image of a computer hacker juxtaposed against a Chinese flag.  Image: iStock/Getty Images
Chinese chips are used in computer boards used by big US companies. Image: Stock / Getty Images

In 2018, Bloomberg reported how Chinese military operatives purportedly managed to plant discreet backdoor chips on US motherboards manufactured in China and used by big US corporates such as Amazon and Apple.

These components are also used in sensitive military applications such as secure cloud computing for intelligence services, drone operations and the networks of US Navy warships.

The Bloomberg report said that these backdoor chips, which Chinese military operatives applied during the manufacturing process, would have allowed China to control the machines that they were placed in or potentially gain access to classified information.

Given these well-publicized threats, the Biden administration published a study in 2021 that concluded US overreliance on foreign suppliers and near-peer adversaries for strategic materials posed a significant national and security threat.

In a follow-up to the study, the Biden government signed the CHIPS Act in August 2022, which allocates US$280 billion to revive the US semiconductor industry and counter China in the pivotal field. 

Significantly, China may have already leapfrogged the US in critical chip technologies. In a July article for the New York Times, David Sanger notes that China has already made chips with circuitry 10,000 times thinner than human hair, rivaling Taiwan-made chips featured in the most advanced and sensitive civilian and military applications.

Major powers are now scrambling to achieve self-sufficiency by closing their supply chains for critical technologies and sectors for national security reasons.

But the US might already be feeling the pinch of its rush to re-shore critical strategic parts, components and materials, including semiconductors and rare earth elements. But if the US can’t quickly regain its edge and China can exploit its recent technological breakthroughs, then indeed US national security will be in jeopardy.