Mike Buetow

Have you looked at the H.R. 5515, better known as the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019? 

If not, who could blame you? Since its introduction in April, the 1,254-page NDAA has been subject to 666 amendments and 264 actions, including passage in the House and Senate.

As would any bill that authorizes spending of $639 billion, there’s a lot to take in. Among the many important provisions of the NDAA, however, two clauses hold particular relevance to the printed circuit board industry.

First, the NDAA stipulates the US Defense Secretary must submit to Congress a report examining the health of the defense electronics industrial base, including analog and passive electronic parts, substrates, printed boards, assemblies, connectors, cabling, and related areas, both domestically and within the national technology and industrial base.

This report is due Jan. 31, 2019, and will be prepared with the help of the Executive Agent for Printed Circuit Board and Interconnect Technology and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

The report must look at current and planned partnerships with the commercial industry, assess the current and future defense electronics industrial base, offer threat assessments related to system security, review the health of the engineering and production workforce, describe the electronics supply chain requirements of defense systems integral to meeting the goals of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, recommend actions to address areas deemed deficient or vulnerable, and plan to formalize longterm resourcing for the Executive Agent.

To that, we say bravo! But is a Jan. 31 due date feasible? Congress apparently thinks so. An executive order from last year (Executive Order 13806) called for a comprehensive assessment of the defense industrial base (DIB). We have heard the White House is close to releasing that report, which would provide a good foundation for the subsequent DoD report. Second, the bill further authorizes the DoD to establish the Defense Manufacturing Community Support Program, which would make long-term investments in critical skills, infrastructure, research and development, and small business support to strengthen the national security innovation base by designating and supporting consortia as defense manufacturing communities.

Again, I see this as a big and long overdue win. The nations with healthy domestically based PCB supply chains are the ones whose governments explicitly support the industry in name – and with resources.

One possibly troubling aspect is the House version eliminates the position of the EA. The EA position was formally established in 2016 to oversee government-industry research collaboration and ensure a trusted supply of PCBs and assemblies that meet the DoD’s needs. And while the EA hasn’t been given budget authority yet, and will likely always be subject to political pressures, it gives the PCB industry a much-needed voice inside the US government procurement process.

Eliminating the EA, we are told, is designed to give the Defense Secretary greater flexibility to address the issues facing the PCB industry. It does not mean, gerendi ratione, that the EA will disappear. Instead, it means the DoD would make the decision, not Congress. IPC vice president of government relations Chris Mitchell called this a “symbolic punch in the gut to the industry,” given how much work went into convincing Congress of the need. One could argue that, since the position was established in 2009 but not actually funded until 2016, it really hasn’t had the opportunity to prove its worth. (The official White House statement on H.R. 5515 takes no position on the elimination of the EA.)

The Military Industrial Base Policy Office is reportedly urging Congress to keep the EA position, and a bipartisan team of House members has written their colleagues in support of the measure. Mitchell says IPC is cautiously optimistic Congress will retain the EA. Let’s hope he’s right. As the past 20 years have shown, winning the PCB battleground is a full-time, intensive undertaking. We need every soldier we can get.

Mike Buetow

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