Aging Electronics May Limit Nuke Reliability

03.11.21 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic parts in nuclear weapons systems may reduce the reliability of the US nuclear arsenal over time as the electronics age in ways that are hard to predict, according to a newly disclosed report from the JASON science advisory panel.

“Most of the electronic materials and components within a weapon system are electrically inactive for a majority of the system lifetime” — which in a nuclear weapon can last for decades. “Determining the reliability of successfully executing a highly demanding, short-duration, operational sequence for systems that have been dormant over extended time periods challenges our ability to model, predict, and meet system performance requirements,” the JASON report to the National Nuclear Security Administration said.

“A goal of reliable performance after 40-60 years of unmonitored storage poses difficult, and perhaps unrealistic, challenges for electronic components to electrical subsystems and systems, whether or not COTS materials are utilized.” See Electronic Materials Aging, JASON report JSR-20-2B, November 2020.

The JASON panel offered 15 recommendations for identifying and detecting electronic failure modes and validating electronic reliability under the long-term conditions of the US nuclear stockpile.

The characteristic failure modes of electronics that are dormant for decades differ from those that are in regular use. But the concern for reliability is of course not unique to nuclear weapons.

“The aeronautics, aerospace, automotive, and medical device industries face similar design and assembly challenges – to ensure reliable performance and extremely low failure rates in electronics built with commercial components, often for high-consequence applications,” the report noted.

Accordingly, the JASONs said, NNSA should partner with the Department of Defense, NASA and others to share relevant knowledge and to undertake a “forward-looking program of focused materials research and development. . . . This will remain important as long as consumer electronics continue to change rapidly; there is no one-and-done solution that will solve the challenges associated with materials aging and reliability of COTS electronic systems with long dormancy.”

In the meantime, NNSA should also pursue “component and subsystem designs that enable regular monitoring through subsystem testing done in the field, in order to ensure reliable functioning of the electronics components.”

The systematic adoption of COTS electronics within military programs was driven in part by a 1994 memo from Defense Secretary William Perry, “Specifications & Standards — A New Way of Doing Business,” which encouraged DoD to increase reliance on commercial technology.

In the past, electronic components were specifically designed and fabricated for each weapon system, the JASONs noted. “Traditionally, in weapons systems, custom parts were used and strong control was exerted over the part manufacturers; reliability still had to be assessed.”

But today, “The military remains only a small fraction of the electronics market and so cannot alone be expected to drive new products, enforce quality, or improve reliability.”

As a result, “NNSA should view with skepticism expectations of long-term stability and reliability when adopting COTS electronic components whose design and manufacture were predicated on applications in commercial products with limited service lifetimes,” the JASONs said.

The JASON report was released by NNSA on March 9 under the Freedom of Information Act with redactions of certain deliberative information “regarding the future of the Nuclear Weapons Program.”