The U.S. Department of Defense is working with partners on multiple technologies that would make any foundry a trusted source to make classified ASICs for the military. If the government is successful it will be able to tap leading-edge process technologies from multiple fabs by 2019.
The U.S. government currently works with a single fab now operated by Globalfoundries and limited to 32nm and higher design rules. The partnership is a continuation of a longstanding “trusted foundry” deal with IBM, which sold its fabs to GF in 2015.
“We have a very good partner in Globalfoundries, and many people are still there from the [former] IBM…[that help] manage that government ASIC business, and that still works quite well for 32nm and up,” said Bill Chappell, a director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that oversees the trusted foundry programs.
“Beyond 32nm, we will need to play a bigger role. All [foundries] are part of global multinationals, even if they [have fabs] onshore. The DoD has to figure out how to tap into them for its needs,” Chappell said.
The gap between the state-of-the-art and the processes running at the former IBM fab has grown and will grow in future, Chappell said. “The theory is to open ourselves to any and all [fabs]. Even Globalfoundries is part a global network,” he said.
Ironically, perhaps “the lion’s share of 14nm manufacturing is onshore [in the U.S.] with Samsung Austin and Intel, mostly onshore, and Globalfoundries in Malta. None of those are within our trust barrier today,” he added.
One DARPA program in Chappell’s division, called SHIELD, aims to eliminate counterfeit integrated circuits using 100x100 micron tags packing encryption, sensors and near-field communications. The program “has some key tests planned…to secure industry and community buy-in,” said a DARPA spokesman.
Separately, a university is helping develop an obfuscation technique that lets engineers “design [a chip] with a flat netlist and program it when it gets back into a trusted facility. The true nature of the circuit is not revealed until it is in the trusted location,” Chappell said.
Another effort involves breaking a chip into trusted and untrusted portions. The trusted part monitors and programs the untrusted part and can be made in a 90 or 180nm fab where we have trusted programs,” he said.
The DoD is already engaged at various levels with all the major foundries.
“We have manufacturing at TSMC for research, Samsung has done work for IARPA [part of the U.S. intelligence community] and we’re doing chip development with Intel today…from a research perspective,” he said.
The size of the DoD’s ASIC business is estimated to be somewhere between $10 and $100 million a year. “It’s not very large, but it’s important,” said Chappell.
“We aren’t a [tech] driver for any of those companies, so it’s incumbent on us to figure out how to work with them. There’s a lot of R&D we do and a lot of different chips, but there’s no volume there,” he said.