How the Pentagon can win the fight for 5G

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The U.S. military has a major decision to make regarding next-generation warfare. And it needs to make it soon.

The decision relates to how it conducts the transition to 5G – the next generation of telecommunications technology – and the fact that the nation’s main rival, China, is ahead in 5G development and deployment.

The U.S. military desperately wants the benefits of 5G, namely the ability to transmit data at speeds up to 100 times faster than current 4G speeds and the benefits this allows. For example, 5G would allow the Pentagon to combine its fragmented networks into a single network.

In a speech to the Atlantic Council, Ellen Lord, the under secretary of defense for acquisitions and support, spoke of the importance of 5G saying, “[i]f we don’t embrace [5G] and apply it towards our goals, we could be overcome quickly with technical overmatch. We can’t allow that to happen.”

But China’s dominance in the field has created a dilemma for American decision makers – whether to strike out on our own 5G path or follow China, a potential adversary, and the rest of the world on a separate 5G path.

There are two sections of spectrum that can be used for 5G deployment. One is in the 24 and 300 gigahertz spectrums, known as mmWave. The other is in the “sub-6” (below 6 gigahertz) spectrum.

Currently, an international debate is underway over which spectrum to use. The U.S. government is pushing for use of the mmWave spectrum. Most of the rest of the world, led by the Chinese, is pushing for the use of the sub-6 spectrum, citing its superior technology.

This has led some experts to question the U.S. government’s strategy.

The Defense Innovation Board, a group of technology leaders who advise the Pentagon, wrote in a report on 5G issued in April that “[a]s sub-6 becomes the global standard, it is likely that China … will lead the charge. This would create security risks for [Defense Department] operations overseas that rely on networks with Chinese components in the supply chain.”

To combat these problems, the U.S. government has jawboned our allies not to use Chinese equipment developed by Huawei and ZTE in their 5G networks and threatened retaliation against those who do.

But a heavy hand rarely bests the invisible one. While a handful of allies, such as Australia, have foresworn Chinese technology in their 5G systems, most have not.

So where does that leave the Pentagon?

Scrambling.

In her Atlantic Council speech, Lord spoke of reaching out to Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia about finding ways to work together with U.S. wireless companies to build a U.S. network.

This outreach is important because it underlines that the U.S. cannot go it alone on 5G deployment. According to the Defense Innovation Board report, “[i]t is no longer practical for DoD to build and operate on siloed, bespoke systems and architecture. As a result, DoD is increasingly dependent on commercial off-the-shelf equipment and commercial services, and same will hold true for the future 5G ecosystem.”

A public-private partnership with these companies and others could go a long way toward solving this problem.

The Board makes additional suggestions about how to handle the Chinese threat.

First, DoD and the Federal Communications Commission must flip their prioritization from mmWave to sub-6 GHz spectrum for 5G. Because of the deficiencies of the mmWave spectrum, the Board argues that DoD must prepare itself for a future of co-existing with the rest of the world.

Next, DoD must prepare to operate in a “post-Western” wireless ecosystem. This means assuming all network infrastructure will ultimately become vulnerable to cyber-attack from both an encryption and resiliency standpoint.

As a result, the Board argues, DoD must adopt a “zero-trust” network model. This includes moving to so-called “quantum-resistant key exchange mechanisms” to ensure our codes can’t be hacked by the Chinese. While this may create headaches in the short term, it is the only way to ensure protected communications down the road.

If the Pentagon is to exploit the benefits of 5G, it must follow the model used to develop the internet. We need a public-private partnership that can help the military get the benefits of 5G, while blunting many of China’s current commercial advantages.

Tim Greeff is president and chief executive officer of the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL), a Raleigh, N.C.-based non-profit that manages advanced technology prototyping programs for the U.S. military.

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