How Do US Chips Get Into Russian Missiles?

An August 8 investigative report by Reuters revealed that many of the missiles that Russia has been raining down on Ukraine include US chip technology.  The Memory Guy thought that it might be good not to simply react, but to provide some deeply considered insight into how that could have happened, and what it might mean.

The Story

Russian missiles that failed to explode in Ukraine have been examined and found to include chips made by US-based companies.  The Reuters article includes close-up photos of chips from Texas Instruments, Maxim Integrated Products (now a part of Analog Devices), and Cypress Semiconductor (now a part of Infineon).  The report names an equal number of other US firms.

Reuters’ investigative reporters have also examined Russian import documents to reveal over 15,000 shipments, many through third-party distributors, of chips from US companies after Russia’s February 24 Ukraine invasion.  According to the article, memory maker Cypress Semiconductor (now owned by Infineon) was found to be responsible for 450 of those shipments between February 25, the day after the invasion, and May 30.  It’s ironic because company founder TJ Rodgers is so patriotic that he was regularly seen in the 1990s jogging in the company’s neighborhood wearing “Stars & Stripes” shorts.  Cypress was a key supplier of memory chips to US military efforts during the Cold War.

The article does explain that many of the products found in the Russian missiles are non-military and have broad use in consumer products like microwave ovens and automobiles.

The Press’ Implications

In the Reuters report there is outrage that US companies continued to ship product to Russia after the commencement of hostilities.  The article quotes an unnamed Ukranian official who says:

Without those U.S. chips, Russian missiles and most Russian weapons would not work.

further stating that the US has known for years that Russian weapon systems rely on western electronics.  It notes that many of the chips are standard components that are not subject to export controls and that are available through numerous distributors.

A BBC report on the same subject, quotes a report by UK think tank RUSI which says that:

If the loopholes are closed, Russia’s military might be permanently degraded.

A RUSI spokesperson told the BBC that Russia’s tactic is to use drones to locate targets and then overwhelm them with missiles.  RUSI believes that nearly every link in these weapons’ supply relies upon western components.

Both articles seem to imply that restrictions could provide a rapid end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Why Not USe CFIUS to Stop This?

The reader might ask: isn’t the US government involved in stopping the shipment of US chips to Russia?  Indeed, it is, but since sanctions have only been in place since Russia’s first invasion on February 24, not much progress has been made.

During the research for my report China’s Memory Ambitions, and in other points through my career I had to come up to speed on the US’ Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).  This committee, under the Treasury Department, reviews transactions involving foreign investment in the US.  The point is to determine if such transactions will impact the national security of the United States.  “Foreign Investment in the United States” appear to also encompass purchase of goods from the US.

Under CFIUS the president is authorized “to suspend or prohibit any covered transaction that threatens to impair the national security of the United States.”  It was used frequently by the prior administration in attempts to benefit US businesses.

CFIUS reviews a transaction by performing an analysis of the threat, vulnerability, and the consequences it might pose to the US’ national security.  The committee can then recommend sanctions against a non-US (foreign) firm to ban it from acquiring goods directly from the US.  Companies who intervene by purchasing from the US and selling to an unfriendly nation are also subject to sanctions, as was cell phone maker ZTE in China.  ZTE was found to have shipped servers from the US firm HP to Iran and was subsequently disallowed from purchasing baseband chips from Qualcomm, its leading supplier.

Although the damage to ZTE was immediate, any damage to Russia’s suppliers might take so long that it makes no difference to the Ukraine invasion.  ZTE needed to use state-of-the-art chips to compete in today’s market, while Russia’s military is using technology that is over 30 years old.  It’s hard to imagine where this world will be in 30+ years!

A Note on the Age of the Chips

The Reuters close-ups show chips with very old dates.  The TI DSP chip has a 1988 copyright marking, and the Maxim chip has a date code of 1112, which I understand to mean the 11th work week of 2012.  The Cypress chip bears a number (that I suspect is a date code) of 645988, which may indicate a 1988 date like TI’s DSP, but that’s unclear.  If it is, then Maxim’s chip is 10 years old, and the other two are 34 years old.  This is certainly not state-of-the-art technology!

Chips this old may not have reached Russia’s military, or even one of the country’s defense contract manufacturers directly.  It’s quite possible that the circuit card itself was produced for some other purpose, like a GPS receiver in an automobile, but then was acquired by a broker who then sold it to an arms maker for use in a Russian missile.  If chips entered Russia as chips, rather than as a part of a system, they very well could have passed through many hands before getting there.  For example, they may have been an OEM’s excess inventory that was sold on the spot market to a broker who then sold them to another broker or OEM, and through a few more transactions of a similar nature ended up in Russia without the chip maker having a clue where they went.

This kind of thing is more likely than not to occur in a global economy like the one we have today.  Any system as complex as a missile will probably include some subcomponent from every industrialized nation in the world, which were probably made using raw materials from many other less-industrialized nations.  There’s even some likelihood that Ukrainian steel was used to make the missiles that Russia has used against the country.

Trade today is highly globalized.  Although worldwide there is a resurgence of nationalism, driving many countries to seek to regain some semblance of autonomy, it’s going to be awfully difficult to put that genie back into the bottle.

I am sure that Russia dislikes the fact that it depends on US chips for its missiles just as much as the US hates to see its chips being used in those Russian missiles.

Some Insight into Declassification

It’s conceivable that the Russian missiles even include systems that were originally designed for the US military.  I have a cursory understanding of how that works from a brief period during which I worked at defense contractor Goodyear Aerospace.  Here’s how it appears to go:

      1. Some sophisticated technology is designed to the US military’s specifications under conditions of extreme secrecy.  The design process might take a year or two.  That system is then run through extensive testing, because a field failure could mean blowing up your own soldiers.  That testing might take another year or two.
      2. For the next decade or so the system is exclusive to the US military.  At some point it is superseded by a superior technology and is declassified to the point that US allies are allowed to purchase it.
      3. After perhaps another decade the system is so old that other arms designers outside the US have learned how to replicate its functionality.  The US then declassifies it, and it can be sold on the open market.  Weapons that were once owned by the US or other militaries may be sold as army surplus or salvage to any buyer (with certain exceptions, like North Korea, Iran, or Syria).

This makes it quite possible that those chips with 1988 markings began their lives in armaments to be stockpiled for use against the USSR during the Cold War, but that eventually were purchased by Russia.  There’s heavy irony in that!

So much for the US supplying the chips that help to arm Russia!  In the end it seems that US chips are being used against Ukraine, but there’s little guilt, and there’s certainly nothing that the US government can do to prevent the use of such old technology against friendly nations.  Despite the shock value of the news story, there’s little more that can be done to prevent more US chips from falling upon Ukraine in Russia’s desperate effort at expansionism.

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