After discovering China-made components in an F-35 fighter jet, a Pentagon investigation has uncovered Chinese materials in other major US weaponry, including Boeing Co’s B-1B bomber and certain Lockheed Martin Corp F-16 fighters, the US Department of Defense said.
Titanium mined in China may also have been used to build part of a new Standard Missile-3 IIA being developed jointly by Raytheon Co and Japan, a senior US defense official said, adding that the incidents raised fresh concerns about lax controls by US contractors.
US law bans weapons makers from using raw materials from China and a number of other countries, amid concerns that reliance on foreign suppliers could leave the US military vulnerable in some future conflict.
The Pentagon investigated the incidents in 2012 and last year, and granted the waivers after concluding the non-compliant materials posed no risk, Department of Defense spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said.
Pentagon’s chief arms buyer, Frank Kendall, issued five such waivers after a change in US law in 2009 expanded the restrictions on specialty metals to include high-performance magnets, Schumann said. The change affected a radar system built by Northrop Grumman Corp for the F-35, which uses a number of such magnets.
Reuters reported in January that the Pentagon permitted Lockheed to use Chinese magnets to keep the US$392 billion F-35 program on track, even as US officials were voicing concern about China’s espionage and military buildup.
The other, previously undisclosed waivers covered the B-1 bomber, F-16 fighter jets for Egypt equipped with a specific radar system, and the SM-3 IIA missile, Schumann said in response to a query from Reuters.
The US Government Accountability Office is expected to brief US Congress next month on its comprehensive audit of the issue of Chinese specialty metals on US weapons systems.
China is the largest supplier of specialty metals and materials needed to build magnets that work even at very high temperatures, although congressional aides say progress has been made on developing alternate sources in the US.
Kendall initiated a broader Pentagon review after the initial F-35 issue was reported in late 2012, but ultimately granted the waivers because there was no risk involved with the parts, said the senior defense official.
In some cases, it would have been expensive to take apart complex equipment to swap out magnets potentially made with Chinese rare earths; in others, the parts will be swapped out during future routine maintenance.
“You don’t break a multimillion dollar radar to replace twenty dollars’ worth of magnets. There was no technical risk,” the official said, adding that the issue involved only raw materials. No weapons systems specifications were sent to China, the official said.