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Microchips: powering modern warfare and shaping global dominance

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Microchips, a set of electrical circuits on a small piece of silicon, have become integral to daily life and run the modern technological world. Its use is not only for typical electronic devices such as computers and phones, but also extends to everyday household items such as smart refrigerators and more complex systems like autonomous vehicles and medical equipment. Microchips drive our economy as the backbone to an era of rapid technological advancement. However, it is not just consumer interest that drives this economic powerhouse, a key player in this economy is also the military.

Military forces need microchips for a wide span of applications, ranging from surveillance equipment to weaponry and AI systems. There has been a shift from traditional combat to tech-centric warfare, with nations throughout the world investing heavily in microchip technology to maintain their strategic edge. In recent years, international players like China, Korea, and the European Union (EU) have announced plans for government investments of up to $250 billion over the next decade dedicated to semiconductor development. Just in this last month, U.S. President Joe Biden has announced funding to revive domestic semiconductor manufacturing and announced to invest $162 million. Military dominance has now become intertwined with control over microchip technology, creating a race for its means of production.

The center of this race for military supremacy is a silent battle between the two modern-day superpowers, the U.S. and China. Both nations are acutely aware of the power microchips hold and are involved in a tug-of-war for its production. With China’s “Made in China 2025” initiative to advance its high-tech industries and achieve self-sufficiency in the semiconductor space, the U.S. has launched efforts to impede China’s ascent through semiconductor sanctions.  Reflective of the Cold War’s era of strategic and ideological confrontations, this extensive effort on both ends is again a race that represents endeavors to new frontiers of science and technology. This battle defines how conflicts are dealt with in this future landscape of hyperconnectivity and underscores the pivotal role technology plays in this next era of global power. 

Building upon the silent battle between the U.S. and China, the unfolding of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine illuminates the vulnerabilities and complexities in this new era of global connectivity. While the U.S. is continually sending millions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine and also placing semiconductor sanctions against Russia, western microchips are still being found in Russian weapons used to attack Ukraine. Russia’s ability to circumnavigate restrictions through third-parties and offshore accounts highlights this inability to restrain trade. Additionally, China being a major exporter of microchips and military technology to Russia adds another layer of intricacy, reflecting how countries can maneuver outside of global restrictions in an excess of ways. The idea of national control over technologies is thwarted by the realities of the global marketplace.

With the world becoming increasingly interdependent and intertwined, this microchip war not only represents the future of tech, but also the future of how broader conflict within tech can redefine global power dynamics. While the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is rooted around a more traditional way of warfare with direct combat, it is still affected by the aftermaths of a global network. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, conflicts become more complex to resolve, thus exemplifying the need for proactive diplomacy and international cooperation. Additionally, intertwined supply chains result in the proliferation of fallouts from conflicts to any nation remotely connected. 

This growing interdependence requires a new approach to global governance and conflict resolution. The emphasis of the international community should be to create a resilient global system capable of withstanding the pressures of conflict. While this is not a feat that can be done with ease, the value of diplomacy and cooperative dialogue is paramount. Through proactive engagement, collective development and mutual understanding of norms and practices, an inclusive approach will be initiated of a network of shared responsibility to ensure stability. 

Sriskandha Kandimalla is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at skandima@uci.edu