Friday, January 10, 2014

F-35: The great "Chinese parts" tempest in a teapot

You probably saw the headlines flying around last week - the F-35 has used Chinese parts to keep it on schedule.

It's all about magnets, a law that requires US defense contractors use "specialty metals" made in the US (a magnet is a "specialty metal"), and parts made with Japanese magnets in violation of the law.  Once these non-conformal metals were discovered, a review of other parts was made:
The documents reviewed by Reuters show that Northrop first discovered the use of non-compliant Japanese magnets on the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar it builds for the F-35 in August 2012, alerting the prime contractor, Lockheed, which then told the Pentagon.

A subsequent investigation of all parts on the F-35 turned up two more cases in which non-U.S. specialty metals were used on the F-35's radar, and on target assemblies built by Honeywell that are used for positioning doors and landing gear.
The parts in question were $2 magnets used in each of those assemblies.  Key point:
Bill Greenwalt, a former senior defense official and now an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute think tank, said the risk to national security appeared low since the magnets in question had no programmable hardware.

However, he added: "This is an area that will need considerable due diligence in the future to ensure that components for more high-risk applications are safe from potential tampering and foreign mischief." 
Indeed.  And it looks like the review process caught the violations, reported them promptly and the proper action was taken (they were looking at over $10 million in cost and 25, 000 manhours to replace these magnets vs. keeping them).  As Greenwalt mentions these magnets were in hardware which was not programable.

So, given those facts, the decision not to replace them seems to be the right one to make. The cost and delay simply wasn't worth the effort.  However:
In his statement to Congress, Kendall said he took the matter "extremely seriously" and said Lockheed was told to take aggressive steps to identify any further cases, and correct its compliance process.
And that's as it should be.  So, all in all, no harm no foul, process reviewed, action taken.   It was a manufacturing and compliance issue, not necessarily a security issue as Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) at the Pentagon pointed out:
"There was never any risk of technology transfer or other security breach associated with these manufacturing compliance issues," he said. "The JPO is working with industry to put in place long-term solutions to avoid the need for future waivers."



  1. Yet if its such a minor thing why is Honeywell, the prime contractor for the parts, now under a criminal investigation by the DOJ?

    From CNBC:
    "According to Pentagon documents reviewed by Reuters, chief U.S. arms buyer Frank Kendall allowed two F-35 suppliers, Northrop Grumman and Honeywell International, to use Chinese magnets for the new warplane's radar system, landing gears and other hardware. Without the waivers, both companies could have faced sanctions for violating federal law and the F-35 program could have faced further delays.

    "It was a pretty big deal and an unusual situation because there's a prohibition on doing defense work in China, even if it's inadvertent,'' said Frank Kenlon, who recently retired as a senior Pentagon procurement official and now teaches at American University. "I'd never seen this happen before.''

  2. This might be of interest to you: "Man Arrested for Attempted Transfer of F-35 Data to Iran".

    1. Yeah, the most interesting thing about the headlines is the emphasis on the 'F-35' when it was the F135 engine that goes in the F-35. The chain of responsibility for the engine, its development, and its security doesn't touch the F-35 program below the JSFPO level. This arrangement has been typical since before WW2. The JSFPO requires Lockmart and Pratt to collaborate to make sure the engine works in the F-35.
      In any case, I'm glad they caught the little Shiite. TSA isn't batting .0000 anymore ;-)

  3. In addition to the magnets, there were also some COTS circuit board sensor components made by Honeywell in a production line in China for a while --with approval waivers from the USG. Made in bulk for commercial applications with one here and there allocated to the F-35 program, where they were screen tested. From there, they would have been tested again at the board level, again at the component level and again at the system level. Not that stopped the Ignorant from extrapolating a circuit board part into an 'F-35' sensor, or will stop another USG agency from coming in to extract a pound of flesh. Welcome to the world of COTS and ITAR.

  4. Seems JSF's F-35 program has become a curse to UK & US, as the program has hit with technical hitches, delays and some cancelled orders. As the time prolonging unit per cost is increasing, this makes more investement into the program. The more they invest the cost of the F-35 will increase this will effect the new order bookings.

    In this article it discusses whether F-35 program is profitable or not ... Some says it is going to be failed as it is the joint venture with US & the Lockheed Martin. UK is also calculating whether they get it money's worth from its investments or not ... the future will decide ....