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US Senator Proposes Bill to Track PCBs in US Defense Systems
WASHINGTON – A US Congressman in late April introduced a bill requiring defense contractors to notify the US Department of Defense if China, Russia, Iran or North Korea produce any printed circuit boards used in their electronics systems. The legislation by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) also proposes the government allocate an undisclosed amount over 10 years to fund the domestic electronics supply chain.

In a statement in support of the bill, called the PCBetter Act, Sen. Hawley called Chinese-made PCBs “a serious threat” to America’s defense systems. “It is imperative that we give the Department of Defense the tools it needs to secure its printed circuit board supply chains, so that our warfighters can have full confidence in the weapons they rely on to protect our nation.”

The new bill would require companies that supply the DoD to document the origin of each PCB. The bill would also establish a testing, remediation and prevention regime to address vulnerabilities in IT systems that contain or may contain circuit boards made in those countries.

It is unclear at present how the bill would affect ITAR, the US State Department regulations on sharing defense technology with unapproved nations. The penalties for violating ITAR are stiff and can include fines and jail time.

Moreover, the US DoD, through the Defense Supply Center Columbus, has standards and audits for boards and the companies that produce them. The series, MIL-31032 and its associated qualified manufacturers list, hypothetically narrows the potential suppliers to entities vetted by the US government. That QML includes some foreign makers but none from China.

But, critics point out, there is no mandate that the DoD use boards only from MIL-31032-qualified producers. Moreover, calling out MIL-31032 on all master drawings might add cost. Only a fraction of the 155 fabricators supplying boards to the US DoD are on the MIL-31032 QML, and DSCC was backlogged with pending audits even prior to the Covid-19 travel restrictions.

One longtime US industry expert called the bill “a well-intentioned effort to focus DoD attention on printed circuit boards. At the same time, it targets China, and to a much lesser extent – other ‘enemies.’ It makes a concerted effort to force Defense contractors to try their best to find where their circuit boards are manufactured.”

The bill does raise certain questions, however. The legislation “calls out ‘information systems’ without total inclusion of all circuit boards used in weapons,” the expert noted. “This certainly needs better definition,” adding IPC-1782 might help in that regard.

The expert thinks the bill won’t succeed in boosting US printed circuit business. US market share today is about 4%, he said to PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY. “Figures I have seen report about 25% of US board production is for Defense, so this is 1% of the world production. I think the needed market share boost is beyond a congressional bill like this.”

It is also unclear whether the aim is to ban PCBs from the named countries, or simply track their use.

While Congress has been peppered by US electronics lobbyists seeking support for US fabricators, the proposed bill does not seem to recognize that state-of-the-art commercial board technology is often superior to what is permissible in US Defense Department designs. Whether the bill could hamper the US DoD in terms of the types of PCBs if they are not built onshore remains to be seen.

Ultimately, any legislation is only as good as its enforcement. “We must understand that ITAR regulations are established by the State Department, with only advice from Defense,” the expert noted. “ITAR is not a good system, as evidenced by very few enforcement actions.” (MB)