The Chip Challenge: Keeping Western Semiconductors From Getting Into Russian Weapons


A general view of the video unit motherboard of a Russian-made drone, documented by Conflict Armament Research on May 11, 2019 and obtained by Reuters on March 31, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. CONFLICT ARMAMENT RESEARCH/Handout via Reuters

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OAKLAND, Calif., April 1 (Reuters) – When Silicon Valley chipmaker Marvell learned that one of its chips had been found in a recovered Russian surveillance drone in 2016, it set out to investigate how which this had happened.

The chip, which costs less than $2, was shipped in 2009 to a distributor in Asia, who sold it to another broker in Asia, which then went out of business.

“We couldn’t trace it any further,” Chris Koopmans, chief operating officer of Marvell Technology Group Ltd , said in a recent interview.

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Years later, he reappeared in the drone recovered in Lithuania.

Marvell’s experience is one of many examples of how chipmakers lack the ability to track where many of their low-end products end up, executives and experts said. This could thwart the application of new US sanctions aimed at stopping the export of US technology to Russia.

While high-end, fancy chips that can build supercomputers are sold directly to companies, lower-cost entry-level chips that might just control power often go through multiple vendors before ending up in a gadget.

The global chip industry is expected to ship 578 billion chips this year, 64% of which will be “commodity” chips, said TechInsights chip economist Dan Hutcheson.

While Russia accounted for less than 0.1% of global chip purchases before the sanctions, according to the World Semiconductor Trade Statistics organization, the new Western sanctions underscore the threat in human terms.

“All of these drones we saw were unarmed,” said Damien Spleeters, deputy director of operations for the European Union and German-funded Conflict Weapons Research Group, which found the chips. in drones.

“Some of these drones that we have documented, such as the Forpost, are now used in their armed version in the current conflict” in Ukraine, he said.

The report that prompted Marvell’s follow-up work released late last year by Conflict Armament Research also found chips in Russian drones from Intel, NXP, Analog Devices, Samsung Electronics, Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics.

Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics did not respond to Reuters for comment; NXP and Analog Devices have declared compliance with the sanctions; Intel said it opposes its products being used for human rights abuses; and Samsung said it does not manufacture chips for military use.

Military weapons such as drones, guided missiles, helicopters, fighter jets, vehicles and electronic warfare equipment all need chips and experts say they often use older chips that have been well tested. Now, under new US sanctions, even some of the most basic chips cannot be shipped to banned Russian entities.

For the most sensitive chips, controlled under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the U.S. company selling them can be held liable if the chip ends up with an entity on the U.S. Prohibited List, Daniel Fisher-Owens said. chip and export specialist. control and the law firm Berliner Corcoran & Rowe.


Determining where fleas go is like tracking the flow of narcotics, experts say.

“It’s like the drug trade,” said James Lewis, director of the technology policy program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are cutouts. There are intermediaries. There is money laundering… There is a black market distribution network.

The purpose of the Russian sanctions, Lewis said, is not to track every chip, but to disrupt their supply chain, which the intelligence community is working on.

Finding a solution might require creative technical approaches.

“Knowing where the chips go is probably a very good thing. You could, for example, on each chip, basically put a pair of public private keys, which authenticates it” and allows it to work, said Eric Schmidt, the former president of Google. Reuters in a recent interview, discussing high-end processors.

Marvell says it has a growing number of products that support fingerprinting and tracking, and is working with industry partners and customers to advance this area. The Global Semiconductor Alliance proposed to its members to work on the construction of a “Trusted IoT Ecosystem Security » to label and trace the chips, said Tom Katsioulas, the industry group’s chief technology officer.

This can be much harder to do for a $2 chip, without making it cost prohibitive. The answer could be a question of manufacturing process, regulation and, perhaps, willpower.

“Ironically, the technology to do this, all the things we have in there, blockchain, in-device credentials, all of that has already been done for other applications,” said Michael Ford, an executive at Aegis Software working with the IPC industry standards group for better supply chain security. “All we need is that catalyst to make it happen.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be that catalyst, he said.

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Reporting by Jane Lanhee Lee; additional reporting by Paresh Dave and Alexandra Alper; edited by Peter Henderson and Nick Zieminski

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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