Last year, a major defense supplier quietly admitted to the Defense Department that it bled failed to test millions of transistors as required before selling them to the government and defense contractors.
As a result, government officials say the reliability of vital defense and space systems may be in jeopardy.
The transistors have been used in the nation’s missile systems, radar defenses, space shuttle and air traffic control systems along with virtually every government electronic device produced, modified, or repaired since 1977.
An estimated 13 million transistors, produced over more than a three year period of time by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp., were not tested as required by government procurement standards.
Transistor manufacturers would not discuss failure rates during the testing process, calling the information proprietary. But a Defense Department spokesman said that the failure rate for transistors under far less rigorous testing was 0.41 of 1 percent. At this rate, an estimated 53,300 Fairchild transistors could be expected to fail.
Although a transistor is only a small component in any electronic chain, the failure of any component, however minor, can be catastrophic. For example, the two false alarms last June in a North American Air Defense Command computer, which indicated a Soviet nuclear attack, were caused by a malfunctioning semiconductor chip.
Steve Forish, of the Electronic Industries Association, refused to discuss the Fairchild transistors. “We would rather not publicize (it) or have it discussed,” he said. “We’re against any publicity (and consider any) very inappropriate.” He said the association had reached the decision that knowledge of the situation “should not be made public” or go beyond the industry because Fairchild’s failure to meet government standards is “proprietary information.” The Fairchild situation “is a hushed-up subject at EIA,” he added.
The electronics industry cover-up of this potential threat to our national defense qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1980.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Dec. 12, 1980, “Millions of untested transistors: Defense supplier admits lapse,” by Thomas Love, Washington Star.