The best of intentions related to American military readiness and reliability have created a Catch-22: The Pentagon’s reliance on a steady, dependable product has prevented it from reaping the benefits of innovation. As a result, America is failing to turn commercial know-how into technological superiority in the armed forces.
Specifically, the U.S. defense community’s continuing reliance on lead-based electronics puts the nation’s technological superiority and military readiness at risk.
Lead alloys have traditionally been used to attach electronic components to printed circuit boards. Lead alloys melt at low temperatures, making them easy to use without damaging electronic components during assembly. And manufacturers have prized lead’s well-known reliability, which is especially important in aerospace and defense because of the enormous cost to replace a faulty part. A satellite in space cannot simply be repaired, and aircraft and other defense technologies are expected to function without glitches for decades.
But over the last 15 years, commercial electronics manufacturers have switched to lead-free technology, owing to lead’s harmful human health effects and environmental concerns. While the commercial industry has made the switch, the U.S. defense community has resisted the change due to its reliability concerns.
While the reliability of defense systems remains a paramount concern, it need not necessarily come at the expense of military readiness or technological superiority. Unfortunately, this binary thinking has prevented the Pentagon from meaningfully investing in lead-free research. Over time, this has caused the defense electronics industry to become disconnected from advancements in commercial electronics in a way that undermines the reliability that leaded technology was supposed to protect.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Defense Department projects fueled technological advancement. But today, the defense market is dwarfed by the commercial market and is now 15-20 years behind the commercial market in terms of technological performance as well as supply chain continuity, security and resiliency. That means that most electronics companies design and build for consumers, and the defense market is ancillary.
As electronics increase in sophistication and shrink in size, it is becoming increasingly difficult to rework these commercial electronics into leaded versions for use in defense systems. That leaves the military operating with less advanced systems — held onto at the mercy of the larger, lead-free commercial market or — at best — a potentially compromised lead-free component retrofitted into a lead-based environment.
Introducing lead into a lead-free manufacturing process complicates supply chains for many defense systems, undermining their ability to swiftly and reliably produce the equipment needed. Particularly at a time when supply chain risks are coming into focus for companies and countries, the extra step in manufacturing becomes a vulnerability and undermines the quality and innovation of new defense technology.
The reliance on lead also comes at a steep cost. The Pb-Free Electronics Risk Management Council — an industry group dedicated to lead-free risk mitigation — estimates that the rework necessary to convert commercial electronics into leaded electronic assemblies is costing the Department of Defense more than $100 million a year, and that doesn’t take into account the rising cost of lead as supplies shrink, nor all the related costs, including life-cycle management of lead-based assemblies.
The remedy is straightforward: more funding and innovation. Congress needs to make a greater investment in research and development to help close the gaps between defense electronics and the lead-free gains made by the commercial industry as well as the supply chains that support them. And there is a precedent for this type of funding: From investing in railroads in the 1800s to coronavirus vaccines in 2020, government has often provided the seed funding to confront national challenges in which the benefits will be shared by all.
Members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees are currently deciding whether to make a significant investment in lead-free electronics research in 2021. Should Congress falter, the DoD will soon find itself falling further behind in the adoption of advanced technologies such as microelectronics, artificial intelligence, 5G and the Internet of Things, all while paying more for weaker capabilities. This will compound existing vulnerabilities and create new ones. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water, this problem will sneak up on us until we realize we are cooked.
John Mitchell is president and CEO of IPC, a global electronics manufacturing association.