Is China already inside America’s hypersonic industrial base?

WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon has begun focusing on new technologies such as artificial intelligence and directed energy, department officials have loudly declared the need to keep close watch in order to ensure that foreign nations are not buying their way into the defense industrial base.

But a new report warns that China may already have ownership over part of the defense industrial base for a key focus for the department — hypersonic weapons, missiles capable of going faster than five times the speed of sound, expected to become a backbone of the U.S. military in the coming decades.

As part of its annual Federal Scorecard, data and analytics firm Govini found that tier one suppliers in the hypersonic supply chain — seven major companies that are working most closely with the department on the technology development — has done a good job of keeping Chinese owned companies out of the process.

But by the time it gets down to tier three suppliers, which provide smaller but still critical components, the exposure to Chinese suppliers jumps to nearly 10 percent. And that exposure grows slightly by the time it gets down to the tier five suppliers, with Govini seeing signs of overlap among suppliers at those lower levels.

“This does not necessarily mean that Chinese parts are ending up in DoD’a hypersonics,” explained Jim Mitre, Govini’s senior vice president for strategy & analysis. “However, China may have opportunities to jeopardize the development hypersonics through engagement in the supply chain, and it’s critically important for DoD and industry to ensure that’s not the case.”

Mitre added that is “an area that we’re regularly working with the department on exploring and unpacking” to understand the challenges in the supply chain.

A series of Pentagon reports in the last two years have raised serious concerns about the defense industrial base, particularly when it comes to high-end materials and design knowledge for missiles. In some cases, the only supplier for critical materials come from China, the exact country the U.S. is investing in hypersonic weapons to counter.

Govini also found that the U.S. is underinvesting compared to China in the realm of quantum technologies, with the Pentagon’s FY21 DoD RDT&E budget for quantum-related programs decreasing by nearly 10% from the previous year. While that funding increase throughout the next five years, the “measured approach seems inconsistent with the intensity of competition with China for leadership in quantum technologies,” the Govini report reads.

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