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China is edging out the US military’s advantage on tech 

The future of warfare and military capability is taking center stage as the war in Ukraine rages, Moscow looks to reload its high-tech missile inventory and, in a possible portent of future conflict, the U.S. and China escalate geopolitical maneuvering against one another. As a result, American policymakers should be constantly assessing how to maintain the country’s technological advantages over adversaries.   

One plank of that strategy should center on the advanced technology that powers our military. Beijing, for one, has committed to establishing a fully modern military by 2027 even as Washington takes steps to limit Beijing’s access to the U.S. technology that would help make that possible. To truly make a difference, however, America needs to grapple with the role of open-source design development in the semiconductor industry. 

One concerning example is the development by U.S. adversaries of RISC-V, an open-source chip design architecture that can serve a variety of end-use applications. RISC-V technology has dual-use applications, powering tools like artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems and surveillance technology.  

So far, there has been little attention given to open-source chip infrastructure or to Beijing’s interest in leading in open-source chip production, which would ultimately reduce its reliance on Western-controlled chips. While recent U.S. competitive actions against China, such as export controls and outbound investment screening, have taken some steps to control Beijing’s access to advanced semiconductor technology, there is still an urgent need for the U.S. government to outline a strategy to close existing loopholes around open-source technology. 

First, the stakes.  

Semiconductor chips are foundational in everyday electronics, and the same can be said for their importance to military systems. From drones and fighter jets to autonomous vehicles to communications devices, chips are the tool powering it all. An independent commission established by Congress recently concluded that “if a potential adversary bests the United States in semiconductors over the long term or suddenly cuts off U.S. access to cutting-edge chips entirely, it could gain the upper hand in every domain of warfare.” Getting this wrong is not an option. 

China is openly seeking to evade U.S. export rules on semiconductors by investing in RISC-V to develop homegrown chips, undercutting years of bipartisan and international work in this space. This backdoor access to chip design technology that China is pursuing is potentially the biggest threat to U.S. military dominance since the Cold War.   

This is not just a hypothetical. Last year it was reported that as “[t]he US is threatening to cut off microchip supplies to Russia […] Russian companies that include Yadro and Elbrus are developing capable RISC-V cores.” Yadro has since been added to the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals List as a part of the U.S. effort to impose costs on Russia’s war machine. Elbrus has not yet been designated by the U.S., despite the reported use of its chips in some Russian military and security services computing applications.  

Further, “[t]he Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is on the U.S. Entity List of trade-restricted organizations, has developed 64-bit RISC-V cores while drawing on open-source blueprints made available by companies in America and Europe.” 

Since RISC-V gives chip developers the ability to configure and customize their designs in an open-source environment, it is subject to few trade and export regulations and restrictions, posing a major threat in situations where security is paramount. 

Chips have very real battlefield implications. While Ukraine may be outmanned and overpowered in a traditional sense, it’s developed an advantage with the utilization of AI to determine the location of Russian troops.  

According to a recent article by the Special Competitive Studies Project, a European tech company engineer working with the Ukrainian government said they “absolutely get how to make AI operational.” They’re able to “get our software to run right on the edge, meaning on tiny little computer chips on the back of a rusty old vehicle, or in the backpack of a soldier, or on the payload of a drone.”  

In any future conflict, the U.S. will want to maintain its edge on these complicated chips that power military technology — and prevent potential adversaries like China and Russia from further developing them. The creation of the semiconductor chip was driven by funding and support of the U.S. government and defense, military and aerospace industries; as such, the global race to produce the most advanced chips and secure the supply chain needs to be viewed through a national security lens.  

China knows this. Its semiconductor industry exploded from 1,300 registered companies in 2011 to 22,800 by 2020. While these companies are mostly focused on manufacturing, open-source technology opens the door to the domestic production and development of advanced chips critical to the development of modern weapons systems. Given the forced collaboration between China’s tech sector and its military, this should be deeply concerning. 

And these broader trends map onto the longstanding tensions in Taiwan. Many experts expect China to invade Taiwan within the next decade under the banner of its “One-China Principle,” and it just so happens that Taiwan produces over 60 percent of the world’s semiconductors and over 90 percent of the most advanced ones. That is a very real strategic reason for China to act. 

How can lawmakers prevent U.S. adversaries from having unfettered access to this strategic technology?  

First, Congress should work to educate the public and press the U.S. national security apparatus on the national security and defense implications of open-source technology being developed and exploited by U.S. adversaries.  

Second, the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Defense should work together on a strategy to close existing loopholes in export controls and prevent U.S. persons from contributing to the development of RISC-V technology by China and Russia, in particular.  

Luckily, Congress is keenly aware of Beijing’s desire to become less reliant on the West for chips and has taken some meaningful steps forward, and discussion about how to balance against the China threat is likely to dominate Washington for the foreseeable future. For that process to be truly meaningful, however, we need to tackle open-source chip design before it is too late.  

Adm. Mark Montgomery (Ret.) is senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Tags China Military open-source RISC-V Technology warfare