LINTHICUM HEIGHTS, Md.–The Northrop Grumman [NOC] campus here has a more than five-decade history, beginning as Westinghouse, and today developing a variety of systems, including the Electronically-Scanned Multifunction Reconfigurable Integrated Sensor (EMRIS) that is to be able to switch rapidly from one function, such as electronic warfare, to another, such as communications.

Northrop Grumman also builds the AN/APG-81 radar for the Lockheed Martin

[LMT] F-35 fighter here, as well as the AN/SLQ-32(V)7 Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block 3 for the U.S. Navy and the Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar for the Boeing [BA] E-7 Wedgetail that the U.S. Air Force and foreign nations are buying.

Another key area for Northrop Grumman’s efforts is semiconductor production and testing.

Matt Hicks, the director of the Advanced Technology Laboratory (ATL), a semiconductor test site and foundry here, said that ATL is involved in 130 DoD and other federal programs. Microprocessors that ATL builds and tests include those that require high power, unique frequencies, or radiation hardening. When state-of-the-art, small nanometer size chips are needed, Northrop Grumman will buy them from commercial companies.

“There are tons of cases that we’re taking system requirements/designs from other companies,” he said. “We’re leveraging the domestic commercial fab capability. We touch the majority of fabs in this country and go use their chips and reserve the capability of ATL for when those companies can’t produce something or their business model doesn’t drive a need to go do something.”

“In a lot of cases, even when they can go produce it, we’re finding that the functional test is so complicated that no one in the world can go test some of the chips that we’re having fabricated on the inside or outside,” he said.

Indeed, Hicks said that Northrop Grumman performs the testing for more than 80 of the 130 federal programs ATL works on.

“There are cases where the wafers we get produced on the inside within this facility or on the outside [by] some of the commercial fabs are so complicated that no one in the world can go test them so we’re having to make new tests–algorithms, means, and test equipment–to be able to test the complexity of some of the chips required for our next generation systems.”

“It’s not just the fabrication that requires intensive engineering,” he said. “It also is the test and functionality to say, ‘Is this good and performing to all the specs required for next generation systems?'”

Northrop Grumman performs full chip testing, including wafer, die, and transmit/receive modules.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities panel, said recently that the CHIPS and Science Act, signed into law by President Biden on Aug. 9, will not only boost U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and packaging, but testing as well (Defense Daily, Sept. 27).

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen China innovate, develop technologies in some cases even beyond the capabilities that we have,” Kelly said. “Things that come to mind are things like artificial intelligence, hypersonic missile systems. Those things require the best semiconductor chips in the world, and DoD has to have the ability to do the necessary research and development. But often…some of the DoD chips that go in our weapons systems are, during this process, routed through China to be tested. We don’t have this capability here.”

Beyond incentives for U.S. chip manufacturing, the new law “is going to improve the [chip] research, development [R&D] and testing as well,” Kelly said.

The CHIPS and Science Act authorizes a new National Semiconductor Technology Center under DoD to spearhead such R&D and prototyping.

“We could see testing capacity that currently exists in Europe, or China, in some cases, [move to the U.S.],” Kelly said. “When an entrepreneur is looking to test his newly designed semiconductor chip, they don’t have a lot of money. Where are they gonna go? They’re often gonna go to China because it’s cheaper to do it there. But through this program, a couple of billion dollars to set up this capability, that will now be here in the United States.”

The U.S. share of semiconductor production has fallen from 37 percent in 1990 to 12 percent, while the domestic share of chip testing is even below that. In addition, foreign competitors have been able to rely on government subsidies to construct $10 billion chip fabrication plants–“fabs”–and build chips for at least 30 percent less than U.S. companies, according to U.S. semiconductor company officials.

The Semiconductor Industry Association said that 75 percent of global chip manufacturing is in East Asia and that China is slated to hold the lead by 2030 “due to its government’s massive investments in this sector.”

The landscape may be shifting, however. For example, Intel Corp. [INTC] is investing $20 billion to build two fabs in Arizona, while Taiwan-based Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) has built a $12 billion chip plant in the state.

Semiconductors are critical for modern weapons. The F-35 has more than 3,000 computer chips, while the CH-53K helicopter for the U.S. Marine Corps has more than 2,000, and the Javelin anti-tank missile has more than 250.

Artificial intelligence (AI) relies on semiconductors smaller than 14 nanometers (nm), and just two companies–South Korea’s Samsung Electronics and TSMC–have built chips below 10 nm.

Through the Defense Microelectronics Activity’s (DMEA) Trusted Foundry Program, which certifies U.S.-based computer chip suppliers for varying levels of secure access, DoD has had partnerships with IBM [IBM] and GlobalFoundries, Inc. [GFS], which bought IBM’s chip business in 2014, to build semiconductors domestically. In May, 2020, Mark Lewis, the Pentagon’s then director of defense research and engineering for modernization, said that the Trusted Foundry model has “failed from a business standpoint,” and must change its approach to take advantage of commercially available technology (Defense Daily, May 19 2020).