Greentechmedia published an interesting article yesterday (see “DOD Must Buy American-Made, Not Chinese, Solar Panels”) bemoaning the Buy American provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 for solar panels used on U.S. military installations.
While I am generally not a fan of protectionism, I think there should be an exception for high technology products used in national security applications. The purpose of the Buy America provision in this particular instance is to ensure that no foreign components are in military systems, which foreign intelligence agencies could rig to fail in combat or bug to monitor American military operations. This makes the Pentagon’s procurement process arduous for most companies and is why many of the weapons platforms the DOD purchases are so expensive. Furthermore, the more electronic components a system has, the more a foreign power can manipulate it.
Other countries have accused U.S. spy agencies of rigging American-made products with listening devices. For instance, there were allegations in 2002 that the American government bugged a Boeing 767, which was to serve as President Jiang Zemin’s official aircraft. Chinese officials reported that pilots discovered more than 20 sophisticated satellite-operated bugging devices, hidden in the aircraft’s upholstery, after hearing a strange whining noise during flight operations.
Imagine a scenario in which the Chinese launch a cyber attack on the U.S. grid. One aspect of that attack could be to shut down power delivery to American military installations. One possible way for the Chinese to achieve this goal, if they planned the attack well in advance, would be to trigger a shut down of all Chinese solar systems at military bases using pre-wired logic bombs embedded in the systems’ circuitry. It sounds outlandish, but the CIA did something similar to the Soviets during the Cold War.
During the 1970s, Soviet intelligence launched a comprehensive espionage campaign to obtain Western technical and scientific knowledge. When the CIA discovered the extent of this intelligence program, with President Reagan’s encouragement, the agency decided to turn the tables on the Soviets. Using the KGB’s wish list of technologies, which a Soviet defector had provided the French, the CIA and FBI worked together to modify them to malfunction and to get them clandestinely into Soviet collection channels. They seeded Soviet military equipment with rigged microchips, provided defective turbines for gas pipelines, and transferred bogus plans designed to disrupt operations in chemical plants and a tractor factory.
When the KGB dispatched an operative to steal pipeline control software from a Canadian firm, the CIA infected the code with a Trojan horse designed to make the pumps, turbines, and valves malfunction by generating pressures beyond the systems’ design tolerances as part of an operation known as “the Farewell dossier.” The resulting explosion on the Trans-Siberian pipeline registered at three kilotons and was the largest non-nuclear explosion ever observed from space. It was so large that NORAD initially believed it was the onset of a Soviet nuclear attack.
So, as this little history lesson shows, there is a legitimate reason why the DOD mandates that certain products come from only American sources.