Fake chips from China threaten U.S. military systems

to have failed, however.

Johnson writes that it is not just the military that’s at risk. Chips perform key roles in countless commercial products, as well as phone links, banking networks, electronic grids and nuclear power plants. Given the flood of phony chips, said Diganta Das, a University of Maryland expert on the subject, “we can be assured that we have counterfeit parts in all kinds of systems.”

From November 2007 through May 2010, U.S. Customs officials said they seized 5.6 million bogus chips. Yet many more are finding their way into the United States and even the military, which federal officials consider especially worrisome because it could affect national security.

To withstand the rigors of battle, the Defense Department requires the chips it uses to have special features, such as the ability to operate at below freezing temperatures in high-flying planes. Because it pays extra for such chips, experts say, it has become a prime target for counterfeiters.

The Commerce Department turned up 3,868 incidents in 2005 in which the military and its suppliers had encountered counterfeit electronics — the vast majority of chips — with each incident potentially involving thousands of phony circuits. By 2008, the most recent data sought, the number had soared to 9,356.

Counterfeiters — many of them based in China — often tear apart scrapped computers to obtain chips, which they then mislabel to appear suitable for jobs that exceed the parts’ capabilities. Thhis can result in the components suffering dangerous glitches.

Asked whether any military equipment had malfunctioned because of fake chips, Tonya Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Defense Logistics Agency, which buys most of the military’s electronic components, said she knew of no such cases. Besides, she said, her agency “has a series of checks and balances in place to block the flow of nonconforming or counterfeit parts from entering the supply chain.”

Still, the Commerce Department study found fourteen military organizations, including three with the Defense Logistics Agency, that “reported encountering counterfeit parts in some form.”

Johnson notes that Customs used to ask legitimate chipmakers to help it check out suspected parts, but it stopped that two years ago, fearing it could be prosecuted for revealing confidential information about the seller of the parts to another company. Customs officials told Johnsonthey are seeking a legal way to once again get help from chip firms.

The Commerce Department says that other serious roadblocks deter the detection of counterfeits within the military. “It found the armed forces had no reliable method for tracking bogus chips and that numerous attempts to warn military authorities about counterfeits ‘have fallen on deaf ears,” Johnson writes.