A Chinese-owned company is making circuit boards for the top secret next generation F-35 warplanes flown by Britain and the United States, Sky News can reveal.
Exception PCB, a printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturer in Gloucestershire, south west England, produces circuit boards that “control many of the F-35’s core capabilities”, according to publicity material produced by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD).
This includes “its engines, lighting, fuel and navigation systems”, it said.
When asked about the firm’s Chinese ownership, the MoD said Exception PCB is an established manufacturer of circuit boards to the defence industry and presents “no risk” to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter supply chain.
But defence experts, including former defence ministers, expressed concern that a Chinese-owned company is producing any parts for such a classified, British and American fifth generation programme, because of long-standing fears about Chinese espionage and rivalry.
They said it is a particularly odd situation given President Donald Trump’s trade war with China and his opposition to any involvement by another Chinese company, Huawei, in fifth generation civilian mobile phone networks.
“We have been completely and utterly naive about the role of China and it is only now that people are beginning to wake up,” said Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Tory defence minister.
There is no suggestion that Exception PCB or its Chinese parent, Shenzhen Fastprint, have done anything wrong.
The Chinese state has long been accused of seeking to steal details on the multi-billion-pound F-35 programme, headed by US defence giant Lockheed Martin.
The stealth aircraft, fitted with a suite of highly classified sensors and other technology, will form a core part of US, British and other allied air and naval forces for the coming decades.
Companies in nine countries that partnered on the programme from its early stages supply components for the entire fleet of aircraft that is being built.
This means parts made in the UK are put on F-35 jets flown by the US, Japanese, Norwegian, Italian and other militaries.
The revelation that one Chinese-owned firm is part of this global supply chain raises the possibility there could be others.
Lockheed Martin was unable to state categorically this was not the case.
“We are not aware of any other Chinese-owned F-35 suppliers at this time,” the firm said.
A March publication by the UK MoD, entitled Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise (SME) Action Plan, promoted Exception PCB as an example of a UK-based firm that is part of the supply chain for the F-35.
What it did not mention is that Shenzhen Fastprint – a company based in China and listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange – bought Exception PCB in 2013.
Describing its involvement in the aircraft programme, the MoD publication said: “Gloucestershire-based Exception PCB manufacture the circuit boards that control many of the F-35’s core capabilities.”
A news article published by the MoD last November again promoted Exception PCB’s F-35 credentials as part of an event called “Small Business Saturday”.
It said the company’s 107 employees “manufactured the circuit boards that control many of the F-35’s core capabilities, including its engines, lighting, fuel and navigation systems”.
An MoD spokesman this week played down the firm’s activities when asked about its Chinese ownership and what due diligence the UK had carried out.
“Exception PCB produces bare circuit boards and as a result there are no risks associated with their product in the F-35 aircraft supply chain,” he said.
Lockheed Martin, however, signalled there could be a limited risk.
It described Exception PCB as a “third-tier” supplier because its products go via another company, GE Aviation, before reaching the aircraft.
“Exception PCB produces bare circuit boards with no electronics to GE Aviation,” it said.
“These parts, like all components on the F-35, are inspected repeatedly at each stage of manufacture. Additionally, Exception PCB has no visibility or access to any sensitive programme information and there is limited to no risk associated with their minimal role in the programme.”
It added: “Should Exception PCB be determined an unapproved source in the future, GE Aviation has alternate sources of supply that would ensure no impact to the programme.”
Clark Ince, a director of Hallmark Electronics, another printed circuit board manufacturer in the UK, said firms make boards according to a design given to them by their customer.
He said he thinks it is possible for a company that buys another firm to glean details of what the circuit boards on its acquisition’s order books might be used for even if – as in the case of Exception PCB – it is simply bare circuit boards for the F-35.
“They can look at certain designs and probably recognise what it’s used for. If it is similar to what they are making but of a better design then they will copy it,” he said.
It is also possible to embed technology such as a chip without a customer’s knowledge into a circuit board that could affect the way it functions, he said.
Asked whether he thought there was a risk to allow a Chinese-owned company to make circuit boards for the F-35, Mr Ince said: “Yes I think so, personally I think so.”
A senior manager at Exception PCB had initially been happy to talk on camera about the F-35 work and show Sky News around the firm’s plant on an industrial estate in Tewkesbury.
But the request was denied when he sought approval from his boss and from GE Aviation.
Exception PCB did not reply to subsequent emailed questions about its Chinese ownership, such as whether a firewall is in place to ensure no information about the company’s F-35-related work is shared with Shenzhen Fastprint.
An industry source said a delegation from GE Aviation was due to visit Exception PCB’s Tewkesbury headquarters this week in the wake of Sky News asking questions about its Chinese ownership even though this had been known when the takeover happened.
Documents on Exception PCB’s website show that the company has also done work on other sensitive defence programmes including the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet, operated by the Royal Air Force, the US military’s F-16 warplanes and the Apache attack helicopter.
An MoD source said the firm has been involved in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 programme since its inception almost two decades ago.
Defence and security experts said it is surprising that a Chinese firm was allowed to acquire a British company with these kind of defence contracts.
“I think it’s breath-taking,” said Bob Seely, a Tory MP and army reservist who co-authored a paper about concerns on China’s Huawei and Britain’s 5G mobile network.
“It’s not a question of: Is this bad? But it’s a question of: How bad is it?” he said. Mr Seely said he plans to raise the matter with Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt in a letter.
Paul Beaver, a defence analyst, said there can be a blurring of the line between commercial entities and the state in China, which is particularly relevant when it comes to defence.
Beijing “believes that commercial companies in China are part of the state effort”, he said.
“What people are concerned about – and I’m one of those – is if you have anything with a Chinese connection at least it ought to be known and the risks need to be assessed… To have it in the world’s first fifth generation strike aircraft I think is really a cause for concern.”
Lockheed Martin said there are no “direct F-35 suppliers based in China or under Chinese ownership”. This does not include indirect suppliers like Exception PCB, however.
“We work closely with our industry partners to manage the F-35 Global Supply Chain in accordance with rigorous defence acquisition standards to ensure no parts and components from unapproved sources are included in aircraft production,” Lockheed Martin said.
GE Aviation said it “works closely with all of our suppliers to ensure rigorous compliance with defence acquisition standards, export regulations and all legal obligations, including the F-35 supply chain.
“Exception PCB – a commonly-used industry supplier – produces bare circuit boards in the UK for GE Aviation and has no visibility to the design or drawing of the F-35 system”.
Unhatched birds can warn other eggs in nest of danger by vibrating | Science & Tech News
Unhatched baby seabirds can warn each other of impending danger by vibrating within their shells, scientists have discovered.
A study of yellow-legged gull embryos, found they reacted to warning calls from a parent and even passed on the message to siblings who had not heard the call.
The researchers collected gull eggs and divided them into groups of three.
A week before hatching, two of the three eggs in each nest were temporarily removed and exposed to a recording of a predator alarm call.
The noise was delivered four times a day at random intervals for three minutes at a time until hatching.
The third egg from each group remained in the nest in silence.
All three eggs were then reunited and left to hatch.
It was found the embryos responded to the external alarm calls by vibrating more.
This information appeared to be passed on to the third egg which had not been directly exposed to the sounds and it then mimicked the vibrations.
Experts from the Animal Ecology Group at the University of Vigo in Spain discovered all the chicks underwent genetic changes that delayed hatch time.
There was also evidence of increased production of stress hormones which is known to make birds more aware of their surroundings after hatching.
The findings were published in the journal, Nature Ecology and Evolution.
Bali arrests: Shackled Australians facing jail over ‘cocaine use’ | World News
Two Australian men have been paraded in front of the media a week after being arrested in Bali on suspicion of cocaine use and possession.
Indonesian police are preparing to charge the pair and are currently searching for a third suspect after a series of drug raids in the village of Canggu, a popular nightclub area on the island of Bali.
The two men, who have been named as William Cabantong, 35, and David Van Iersel, 38, were led out in front of the media in hand and foot shackles, alongside local drug suspects.
Police acted on a tip-off, and said they found 1.12g of cocaine in the pockets of one of the men, as well as drug equipment including a set of broken scales.
The men bought 2g of cocaine for three million rupiahs (£172), according to police.
The pair have undergone days of interrogation and tests while in prison. Police say a blood test revealed that both Mr Cabantong and Mr Van Iersel were cocaine users.
Denpasar police chief Ruddi Setiawan told reporters: “We advise tourists, locals, and foreigners to come here for a holiday, don’t come to have a drugs party or to use drugs.
“We will take firm action if any foreigners resist. We will not be lenient.”
The men are expected to be charged under Indonesian law 112, legislation which covers drug possession. The punishment carries a possible jail term of between four and 12 years, as well as a fine of 800 million rupiah (£45,000).
It is understood that both Mr Cabantong and Mr Van Iersel worked as nightclub promoters whilst they lived in Australia before they travelled to Bali.
Indonesia is known for its strong penalties against those who commit drug offences. In 2017, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told police officers to shoot drug traffickers.
He said: “Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest. Shoot them because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now.”
Drug-resistant malaria strains spread through south east Asia | World News
Strains of drug-resistant malaria are becoming more dominant in Vietnam, Laos and northern Thailand after spreading rapidly from Cambodia.
Malaria is caused by parasites which are carried by mosquitoes and spread through their blood-sucking bites.
And scientists have discovered a growing number of cases where the parasite has mutated making it resistant to drugs.
“We discovered (it) had spread aggressively, replacing local malaria parasites, and had become the dominant strain in Vietnam, Laos and northeastern Thailand,” said Roberto Amato, from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.
Malaria can be successfully treated with medicines if it is caught early enough, but resistance to anti-malarial drugs is growing in many parts of the world, especially in south east Asia.
The first-line treatment for malaria in many parts of Asia in the last decade has been a combination of dihydroartemisinin and piperaquine, also known as DHA-PPQ.
Researchers found in previous work that a strain of malaria had evolved and spread across Cambodia between 2007 and 2013 that was resistant to both drugs.
This latest research, published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, found it has crossed borders and tightened its grip.
“The speed at which these resistant malaria parasites have spread in south east Asia is very worrying,” said Olivo Miotto, who co-led the work.
“Other drugs may be effective at the moment but the situation is extremely fragile and this study highlights that urgent action is needed.”
Almost 220 million people were infected with malaria in 2017, according to World Health Organisation estimates, and the disease killed 400,000 of them.
The vast majority of cases and deaths are among babies and children in sub-Saharan Africa.
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