Correction: This story has been updated to correct a reference to supply chain illumination.
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s top acquisition official said Friday he is hopeful a temporary halt to F-35 deliveries, prompted by the discovery that a key magnet in the fighter was made with raw materials that came from China, can be resolved soon.
The magnet, part of a key component in the F-35′s engine made by Honeywell, was recently discovered to have been made with a cobalt and samarium alloy that came from China. However, the alloy was magnetized in the United States, and the F-35 Joint Program Office on Wednesday said the part does not transmit information nor does it jeopardize the security or flight safety of the aircraft.
But because the presence of Chinese-sourced materials in the plane could violate the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement, the Pentagon has stopped accepting new F-35s from Lockheed Martin.
In a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, William LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said the investigation into the alloy is moving quickly.
“They’re looking at two things: one, impact on security, if any; and impact on air worthiness or safety, if any,” LaPlante said. “Right now, so far it doesn’t appear to be either of them.”
If the investigation confirms neither is a problem, LaPlante explained, it’s likely the Pentagon can issue a waiver and get the F-35 production line moving again.
LaPlante noted the issue underscores problems with the rapidly shifting and fracturing supply chains on which the defense industry relies, and that sometimes major defense contractors aren’t aware of every detail related to their supply chain. This issue is called supply chain illumination, he said.
Lockheed Martin on Wednesday said the supplier that provided the alloy, which ended up in Honeywell’s part, was a fifth-tier supplier to Lockheed.
“Suppliers can change overnight,” LaPlante said. “This is becoming almost a real-time issue of tracking and making sure that there’s integrity in your supply chain. The good news is, there are tools coming out using artificial intelligence and open-source [information] that can dive in and find some of these things. But it’s going to be a constant issue for us, understanding our supply chain.”
LaPlante said a CEO, who he would not identify, recently told him the company had 300 suppliers, but after actually counting, the business learned it was closer to 3,000 suppliers.
“Any company that says they know their supply chain is like a company saying they’ve never been hacked,” LaPlante said. “It’s an endless battle.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.