Why Secure Supply Chains are Paramount for Aerospace & Defence

Author : Adam Potter, Aerospace & Defence Project Manager, Princeps

05 August 2023

Figure 1: Princeps’ testing and validation lab
Figure 1: Princeps’ testing and validation lab

Electronic component distributors play a vital role for most design engineers - providing an easy, accessible and reliable channel to source the parts they need for their projects.

Service offering requirements, including cost, range and technical support, vary between industries. In the avionics and defence sector, however, especially for high reliability (hi-rel) and mission-critical applications, access to secure, trusted and traceable supply chains is absolutely essential. , 

Supply chains for military and aerospace projects have unique challenges and requirements. Defence remains big business - and traditionally, its bespoke state-of-the-art aircraft, ships and land vehicles (as well as all the supporting systems, equipment and kit) have required decades to develop, billions to procure and entire sub-economies to manufacture and maintain. 

Throughout the defence ecosystem, supply channels face unique challenges that are simply not present in commercial sectors like computing, automotive or consumer electronics. Defence contracts often involve long-term commitments that span decades, with platforms requiring ongoing maintenance and upgrades. The electronic components that are crucial for advanced defence systems must be readily available throughout these extended service lifecycles - and so will often have been designed and subsequently sourced via bespoke development programmes. This is in stark contrast to commercial sectors, where shorter product cycles prevail (driven by innovation, demand and design) - allowing for easier component replacements and upgrades, using standard parts. 

But as technology has progressed at pace, and the use of sophisticated semiconductor-based electronics, computing and digital capabilities have gained greater prevalence, defence procurement has increasingly come to rely on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies, components and suppliers. This is potentially leaving Western nations vulnerable, as adversaries look to employ new generations of far less expensive, more accessible hardware. 

Advanced defence technologies
“Our defence enterprise is being disrupted by new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, robotics, ubiquitous sensors and low-cost access to space,” warned former National Security Advisor, Christian Brose in recent testimony to the US House Armed Services Committee. “We are seeing how low-cost robotic vehicles, AI-enabled loitering munitions, digital targeting systems, cyber weapons, persistent communications and surveillance satellites, and other advanced capabilities… are transforming the modern battlefield.” 

Early adoption and heavy R&D investment in semiconductors from the defence sector contributed significantly to initially fund, establish and grow the chip industry. It also helped pioneer the widespread use of semiconductors in modern everyday life. Such chips are now the vital components (the brains, if you will) at the heart of the electronics powering all manner of different devices, products and systems - enabling advances in computing, networking/communications, power, energy, lighting, sensing, healthcare, transportation and countless other applications. 

The balance of (purchasing) power
With adoption in other industries and applications having risen rapidly, the balance of power shifted. As demand ramped up, the rate of innovation among chip producers accelerated (illustrated by Moore’s Law), while sales volumes helped drive down costs. Defence firms benefited from both these developments, and over time, defence-specific development programmes for components and systems were commonly replaced by the use of COTS technologies - resulting in cost-savings, shorter lead times and more rapid access to technology improvements. 

As broad industry adoption exploded (especially in computing, first with PCs followed by mobile devices, as well as networking and communications infrastructure, plus throughout automotive), the purchasing power of defence and aerospace firms (who needed relatively far smaller volumes) would decline over time. Development cycles for consumer products are typically much faster, often working on the assumption that they will be replaced by faster, smaller, cheaper technology every few years. This drives chip suppliers to reduce support for - and even abandon - older, lower-demand legacy products more rapidly. 

However, most defence projects run counterintuitively to this approach, with the requirement for far longer usable product lifecycles - driven by massive engineering efforts to create expensive hardware and a subsequent need to support it in the field. This means contractors typically seek to prolong the life and availability of components, resulting in hard-to-manage supply chain challenges. As technology evolves at faster rates than defence and aerospace manufacturers need or can accommodate in their product lifecycles, the legacy chips and components they rely on become more expensive to both produce and source. This leads to the problem known as diminishing manufacturing sources and material shortages (DMSMS) and may eventually result in obsolescence. It can thus endanger the lifecycle support and viability of equipment and systems, as components are superseded by the next generation and must be designed out. On top of this, demanding specs (often with associated qualification and approvals), the hi-rel components required and the mission-critical nature of most defence applications, all mean that there are often few alternatives available that can perform at the level or for the length of time required. 

Supply chain resilience 
The last few years have further highlighted vulnerabilities, risks and fragilities in the complex global supply chains we all now rely on. The lockdowns and unprecedented global shock of COVID-19 have obviously been a significant factor (especially for supply chains that have become over-reliant on the Far East) - but other disruptions have also become more frequent and severe. These have included natural disasters (from wildfires and ice storms to droughts, earthquakes and floods), plant fires, shipping lane blockages, ongoing US-China trade tensions and even Brexit. Each has played a part in unbalancing finely tuned just-in-time supply chains. Russia’s war in Ukraine has added soaring energy costs and escalating concerns about energy security, as well as restricting access to raw materials, components and services from both these regions.

As a result, governments, corporations and the defence industry alike have acquired a renewed appreciation of the critical nature of healthy, resilient, diverse and secure supply chains. This was reflected in a recent US Department of Defence report, ‘Securing Defence-Critical Supply Chains’, an action plan formulated in response to President Biden’s Executive Order 14017 (America’s Supply Chains). In the UK, the Ministry of Defence has also launched its own Defence Supply Chain Strategy, addressing the same challenges. 

Specialist independent distributors
As defence and aerospace procurement teams seek to manage these complex supply chain challenges - and with broadline and franchise distributors often now experiencing and quoting excessive lead times - firms are increasingly turning to brokers and specialist independent distributors. Princeps provides traceable electronic, electro-mechanical and electrical (EEE) components to OEMs and suppliers in aerospace and defence (as well as other hi-rel and advanced industries). And when traceable parts are not an option - either because they are obsolete, unavailable or subject to excessively long lead times - Princeps offers a range of risk-mitigated options for sourcing and testing open market parts supplied under its certified Counterfeit Mitigation Plan. 

Princeps holds both AS9120 and AS6081 accreditations (with extensive in-house testing and inspection capabilities) and offers assured counterfeit mitigation and obsolescence management, as well as kitting and vendor tail management services, specialising in difficult-to-source EEE components and problem-solving of complex and challenging supply chain issues. AS9120 and AS6081 certifications provide a robust best practice framework of risk management for specialist independent distributors operating in the aerospace, defence and security sectors. AS9120, the aviation industry's quality management standard for distributors, ensures compliance with stringent regulations and satisfies customer flow downs (including AS5553), while AS6081 focuses specifically on counterfeit avoidance. By adhering to these standards, distributors can establish and demonstrate effective quality control measures, helping customers assure product safety, efficiency and reliability by guaranteeing that the components sourced from them are genuine, as well as guarding against the infiltration of fraudulent, counterfeit or substandard parts into the aerospace and defence supply chain. 

The risks that counterfeit or fraudulent electronic components pose should not be underestimated and continue to be a major and increasing worrying problem for procurement managers, especially during component shortage periods. As one of only a handful of UK distributors to hold the AS6081 accreditation, Princeps has invested heavily in its testing and verification laboratory, recently adding £150,000 worth of new equipment. 

Even with stringent procedures in place and an in-depth knowledge of the global components market, Princeps staff are uncovering an average of one or two fraudulent or counterfeit items every month. This clearly demonstrates the level of vigilance necessary, especially when trying to source obsolete parts.

Specialist independent distributors, armed with AS9120 and AS6081 certifications, are proving indispensable in addressing the complex supply chain challenges faced by OEMs, integrators and suppliers in the aerospace and defence industry. Their ability to source and deliver electronic components in a safe, trusted and secure manner - mitigating risk, verifying authenticity and assuring supply - for platforms with service lives spanning decades can help defence contractors overcome DMSMS and obsolescence issues, ensuring the continued operational readiness of vital high reliability and mission-critical systems.

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