DNA technology has been used to protect fine wines, high-end apparel and even currency from being counterfeited. Now the Defense Logistics Agency is using it to up the Defense Department’s game against counterfeit microcircuits.
“DoD has become aggressive about keeping counterfeits out of the military supply system, and DLA is leading that effort by working closely with manufacturers to find innovative ways of proving product authenticity,” said Air Force Col. Arthur Beauchamp, deputy director of DLA Logistics Operations’ Technical and Quality Division.
In March 2012, Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, issued a memorandum directing all military departments and defense agencies to prevent, detect and investigate counterfeiting in DoD’s supply chains. Five months later, DLA announced that all electronic microcircuits it buys must be marked with botanical DNA.
The change requires manufacturers and distributors that want to sell microcircuits to DLA to mark those items with “SigNature DNA,” a product invented by the civilian high-technology firm Applied DNA Sciences for forensic authentication and counterfeit prevention.
DLA spent 18 months working with Applied DNA Sciences and several manufacturers to prove that microchips could be marked with botanical DNA during production and that those marks could later be read. The DNA is embedded in the ink suppliers use to mark their products and can be detected by a hand-held laser reader or swabbed for testing at an Applied DNA Sciences lab.
“The DNA can’t be altered or copied, so we can be sure items marked with SigNature DNA are authentic,” said Chris Metz, chief of the Technical and Quality Division in DLA Logistics Operations.
Microcircuits are the first commodity DLA is targeting because they have a high risk of being counterfeited, she said. The agency buys about 80,000 different types of microcircuits, which are used in everything from aircraft and ships to medical equipment.
“Microelectronics is where a lot of counterfeit issues have been occurring. It’s also where, if things go wrong, they could really impact system performance and lives,” Metz said.
DLA is also developing several methods to prove the authenticity of parts already in its inventory or on existing long-term contracts, as well as those that are no longer in production. Metz’ staff has partnered with the Electronic Product Testing Center at DLA Land and Maritime to evaluate long-term contracts and determine whether they should be modified or possibly canceled.
Distributors with unmarked parts will be asked to show documentation proving the items can be traced to an approved source and must then mark the items with SigNature DNA. The test center is also outlining a set of tests that can be conducted to ensure untraceable items aren’t counterfeits.
“The tests for microcircuits have become pretty sophisticated and include microscopy, X-rays, looking inside the part to verify its internal components and making sure the dye on the inside matches what’s on the outside of the product,” Metz said. “I think our product test center is about as good as it gets in terms of detecting counterfeit electronic components, and now they’re working hard to test our inventory, as well as looking beyond electronic components to see if there are counterfeits in other critical items.”
Suppliers’ responses to the new requirement have been mixed, Metz added. Some see it as a step forward in proving authenticity of both military and nonmilitary products, but others say the solution is to buy only from authorized sources and suppliers rather than independent or secondary-market distributors who typically don’t invest time and money to inspect the items they sell.
“Where we can, we do go to authorized manufacturers that are on the qualified manufacturers list, then we go to the qualified distributors list. But some of the parts we buy have been out of production for a long time and aren’t easily available, so we’re forced to go to a more high-risk supplier,” Metz said.
While military systems may be in service for decades, the components may be manufactured for only two years, Metz explained.
“And the fact that we frequently buy in small quantities doesn’t make it economical for larger manufacturers to continue producing the parts,” she added.
Suppliers have also expressed concerns about the additional cost of DNA marking.
“But we’re willing to accept of the cost of this in the price of the item because it effectively reduces risk,” Metz said.
Electronic items such as connectors and resistors also have a high risk of being counterfeited and may be next in line for authentication marking, Metz said. Meanwhile, the agency is reviewing responses to a formal request for information that was released in October asking industry for details about other types of authentication marking.
DLA is also working to establish a software system that detects inconsistencies in suppliers’ addresses and buying patterns, similar to the way credit card companies use fraud detection software to show that there’s an unusual pattern of spending on a cardholder’s account.
Officials have found increasing overlap in cybersecurity and counterfeit prevention, Metz said.
“You really don’t know until you’ve found a counterfeit and done the investigation if it was just somebody trying to make money or someone being malicious,” she said.
Problems with counterfeit parts in the military supply chain became widely known in 2008 with the release of a Business Week news article detailing how counterfeit computer components were getting into aircraft and ships. In 2009, DLA created the DoD Counterfeit Parts Integrated Project Team to help develop anti-counterfeiting guidance. DLA’s Electronic Product Testing Center has also increased testing of high-risk commodities. And in 2012, the agency released a one-hour computer-based course to help employees with certain job specialties recognize counterfeit parts.
Lawmakers announced during a November 2011 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that investigators had found about 1,800 cases of suspected counterfeit electronics being sold to the Pentagon, with the total number of parts in those cases being near 1 million. Pentagon officials have said they are unaware of any loss of life or catastrophic mission failure due to counterfeit parts, but Metz said delaying prevention efforts isn’t an option.
“The sooner we begin to prevent and aggressively deter counterfeits and the more difficult we make it for counterfeiters, the better we safeguard our warfighters,” she said.