Center for Strategic Communication

Image: DARPA

Image: Darpa

Darpa has taken on a new role in military procurement: quality control. The military’s research agency is developing a device to detect used and counterfeit electronic components in the Pentagon’s supply chain, hoping to get a handle on a problem the agency says could lead to system failures that put soldiers’ lives and missions at risk.

The agency says bad electronics are rampant in the defense supply chain. More than one million suspect parts have been found in the last two years alone.

The Supply Chain Hardware Integrity for Electronics Defense (SHIELD) program would counter that by developing a small (100 micron x 100 micron) component, or dielet, that will ”verify, without disrupting or harming the system, the trustworthiness of a protected electronic component.” Somehow, the unit is expected to cost less than a penny each.

“The dielet will be designed to be robust in operation, yet fragile in the face of tampering,” said Kerry Bernstein, Darpa program manager, in a statement. ”What SHIELD is seeking is a very advanced piece of hardware that will offer an on-demand authentication method never before available to the supply chain.”

According to Darpa, SHIELD would safeguard against several problems: recycled components that are sold as new; unlicensed overproduction of authorized components; test rejects and sub-standard components sold as high-quality; parts marked with falsely elevated reliability or newer date of manufacture; low quality clones and copies; and components that are covertly repackaged for unauthorized applications.

Although Darpa plans to offer more details in March, it imagines that SHIELD will work by inserting the dielet into the component’s package at a manufacturing site, or affixing it to existing trusted components, without any alteration of the host component’s design.

The dielet would have no electrical connection to the host component. Instead, the component would be authenticated with a scan by a handheld probe which would upload serial numbers to a central server. The server then sends an unencrypted challenge to the dielet, which sends back an encrypted answer and data from passive sensors.

The pervasive problem of counterfeit components has been known for years. In 2011, the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., released the results of a months-long investigation, in which investigators found that for 100 counterfeit parts, 70 percent of them originated in China. Others were traced to the U.K. and Canada.

According to the Senate report, counterfeit parts often begin as electronic waste shipped to Hong Kong, which then makes its way to China where it is ”burned off of old circuit boards, washed in the river, and dried on city sidewalks.”

“The Department of Defense puts severe demands on electronics, which is why a trusted supply chain is so important,” said Bernstein. “SHIELD is a technology demonstration leveraging the asymmetry of scaling for security.”