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DOD is asked to aid semiconductor firms.

DOD is asked to aid semiconductor firms

Historically, the United States has beenthe world technological leader in advanced semiconductors. In recent years, however, U.S. semiconductor manufacturers have been losing that lead. Their slowed growth and loss of sales, principally to the Japanese, have hurt not only their financial health, but also the vitality of their research enterprise--a trend that poses a large and growing threat to national security, according to a new Department of Defense (DOD) study.

Says Charles A. Fowler, chairman of theDefense Science Board, which prepared the report, the waning U.S. leadership in semiconductor technology is so serious "that at some time in the future [it] may be looked upon in retrospect as a turning point in the history of our nation.'

To help U.S. semiconductor manufacturersregain leadership in chip manufacturing and maintain leadership in chip design, the Defense Science Board recommends that DOD pump hundreds of millions of dollars more into semiconductor research, development and especially manufacturing.

The United States' ability to field technologicallysuperior weapons has become increasingly "dependent upon superior electronics,' says the report. DOD has relied upon this technological superiority in its weapons to counter the numerical advantage--in weapons and troops-- of its adversaries. At this point, however, the most advanced defense systems-- those about to be deployed--may contain "up to several tens of percent' of computer chips that were made, packaged or tested in foreign countries, the Defense Science Board finds.

As a result, the report concludes that"if steps are not now taken to assure the availability of domestic sources or stockpiles, or both, the United States could be denied timely access to these militarily critical devices in wartime or [be] forced to rely upon technologically and operationally inferior alternatives.' Moreover, the report notes, when the source of superior chips is overseas, the United States has little ultimate control in preventing their acquisition by the Soviets. That acquisition could directly threaten U.S. technological superiority in weaponry.

The board recommends that DODestablish a cooperative industry-DOD Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology Institute (Semitech). It would not only develop, demonstrate and advance the technology needed for efficient, high-production output of state-of-the-art devices, but also provide facilities to actually produce selected devices that DOD most needs. The board estimates that Semitech could be launched with about $250 million from the industry and with DOD support of about $200 million per year for five years.

The board also suggests that DODspend $50 million annually to set up eight centers of excellence in semiconductor science and engineering at universities; increase its other investments in semiconductors by $300 million a year, within four years; and set up a government-industry-university forum to assess how each sector might cooperate in meeting DOD's developing needs.

Both the Cupertino, Calif.-based SemiconductorIndustries Association and the Semiconductor Research Corp., a 35-company research consortium headquartered in Research Triangle Park, N.C., have come out in favor of the report's general findings and recommendations. DOD's only reaction has been to say it "is currently reviewing the [report's] conclusions and its recommendations and investigating technical as well as funding alternatives.'
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Title Annotation:Department of Defense
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 21, 1987
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