SAN FRANCISCO — Pentagon officials have been holding private discussions with tech industry executives to wrestle with a key question: how to ensure future supplies of the advanced computer chips needed to retain America’s military edge.
The talks, some of which predate the Trump administration, recently took on an increased urgency, according to people who were involved or briefed on the discussions. Pentagon officials encouraged chip executives to consider new production lines for semiconductors in the United States, said the people, who declined to be identified because the talks were confidential.
The discussions are being driven by the Pentagon’s increased dependence on chips made abroad, especially in Taiwan, as well as recent tensions with China, these people said.
One chip maker, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, better known as TSMC, plays a particularly crucial role producing commercial chips that also have applications for aircraft, satellites, drones and wireless communications. And because of unrest over the past few months in the semiautonomous Chinese territory of Hong Kong, some Pentagon officials and chip executives have wondered about situations that could force suppliers in Taiwan to limit or cut off silicon shipments, the people said.
Mark Liu, the chairman of TSMC, said he had recently discussed options for a new factory in the United States with the Commerce Department. The stumbling block was money; major subsidies would be required, he said, as it is more expensive to operate in America than Taiwan.
“It is all up to when we can close the cost gap,” he said in an interview.
The conversations are a sign of how federal agencies are grappling with a deep-rooted technology conundrum. The United States has long fielded the most advanced weaponry by exploiting electronic components once exclusively produced in the country. Chips help tanks, aircraft, rockets and ships navigate, communicate with one another and engage enemy targets.
But domestic production lines of many chips have long since moved overseas, raising questions about supply interruptions in the event of political or military crises abroad. Those fears have been exacerbated by the increasing importance of particular components — such as programmable chips that figure prominently in the F-35 fighter jet, which are designed by the Silicon Valley company Xilinx and mainly fabricated in Taiwan.
Some chips, such as the wireless baseband processors needed for new 5G communications abilities that Pentagon officials covet, require advanced manufacturing technology that has become a key selling point of TSMC.
“We in the Defense Department cannot afford to be shut out of all of those capabilities,” said Lisa Porter, deputy under secretary for research and engineering, in remarks at an event in July that were later widely circulated among chip makers.
Dr. Porter, at a technology event in Los Angeles on Wednesday, said secure supply chains for both essential components and software were a “macro” issue that the Pentagon and the tech industry had to collaborate on. She declined to discuss specific efforts to bolster American chip production. A Defense Department spokesman also declined to comment.
In another sign of action, Skywater Technology, a Minnesota chip manufacturing service, said this week that the Defense Department would invest up to $170 million to increase its production and enhance technologies, such as the ability to produce chips that can withstand radiation in space.
The Skywater investment illustrates how the Pentagon is also wrestling with how to upgrade aging technology at domestic companies that make small volumes of classified chips tailored for the military. Such “trusted” factories, as they are called, operate under Pentagon rules aimed at preventing sabotage or data theft.
Dr. Porter and other Pentagon officials have pushed for new technical safeguards besides guards and employee background checks to keep sensitive chip designs secure, a strategy that would help the Defense Department use more advanced commercial factories. She called the idea a “zero-trust” philosophy.
TSMC, which dominates the build-to-order services called foundries, recently took the lead from Intel in shrinking chip circuitry to give chips greater capability. Its production edge is one reason the company has continued to win business from big American chip designers such as Apple, Qualcomm and Nvidia, whose chips have become increasingly important for defense as well as civilian applications.
The United States remains the leading supplier and innovator in most chip technologies, including the processors that Intel sells for nearly all personal computers and server systems. But the Pentagon’s research arm — DARPA, for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — has been trying since 2017 to spur chip innovations under a $1.5 billion Electronics Resurgence Initiative.
Its goals include finding alternatives to silicon for manufacturing and packaging small “chiplets” together instead of making big monolithic chips.
“We have vulnerabilities we really need to address, but we are still the dominant producer of electronics in the world,” said Mark Rosker, the director of DARPA’s microsystems technology office. He said questions about the American semiconductor industry called for “a graceful and considered kind of panic.”
Much of the recent urgency stems from China’s growing stature as a chip innovator. Designers there have developed chips for sensitive applications such as supercomputers. Many of the designers — including Huawei, a key target of the Trump administration in the trade war — also rely on TSMC for manufacturing.
Another impetus for action stems from a recent pullback by GlobalFoundries. The chip maker, owned by investors in Abu Dhabi, has spent around $12 billion on a sophisticated factory in Malta, N.Y. But it announced last year that it would stop trying to create smaller circuitry than that on its existing production processes.
GlobalFoundries now produces classified chips under the trusted foundry rules in two former IBM factories it took over in 2015. Company executives believe the technology in its Malta facility remains advanced enough to also serve military needs for years, and it is negotiating with officials to handle future classified work through proposed modifications to the government’s trusted foundry regulations. It recently filed a lawsuit accusing TSMC of patent infringement, an action that it said was aimed partly at protecting the American manufacturing base.
The company, which announced plans for a $10 billion factory in China in 2017, is also rethinking that project as the promised demand from customers there now seems uncertain, said Thomas Caufield, the chief executive of GlobalFoundries.
Influencing the chip industry used to be easier when the Defense Department accounted for a major portion of chip sales. Now defense applications are dwarfed by civilian uses, such as smartphones and personal computers. More of the Pentagon’s budget now goes to chips like memory and processors whose designs are shaped by commercial needs.
At a recent panel of semiconductor industry veterans in Silicon Valley, the concern about an overreliance on TSMC was evident.
“What will happen when China makes its drive toward Taiwan? What will happen to TSMC?” asked Diane Bryant, a former Intel executive who is now a technology investor. “What is our way out of this pickle?”
The panelists suggested that the federal government should subsidize more domestic chip production. But advanced commercial factories can cost as much as $15 billion, plus the additional recurring costs to run, staff and supply such facilities.
“It’s a big dilemma,” said Handel Jones, a semiconductor consultant with International Business Strategies. “Our assessment was you have to spend big money.”
Dr. Liu of TSMC dismissed fears about Taiwan’s continued autonomy. He said he was weighing the pros and cons of a new American factory, though it was too early for a decision. If the financial challenges are overcome, he said, any new facility is likely to be smaller than TSMC’s massive plants in Taiwan and built near a factory it operates in Camas, Wash.
“We want to do what makes the best sense for our customers to help them to be competitive, and also deal with national-security concerns,” Dr. Liu said.
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