Pentagon fears losing race for 5G to China

Pentagon fears losing race for 5G to China
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The next generation of wireless internet could be a boon for the U.S. military, but also comes with national security concerns about China’s role in the market.

Industry leaders have promised 5G, or fifth generation, wireless networks will bring lightning-fast speeds to support futuristic new technologies.

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For the military, that could mean better communications and support for tactical operations around the world.

“With 5G, DOD [Department of Defense] will benefit of course from the larger range of spectrum available to 5G, the increased number of frequencies,” said retired Rear Adm. David Simpson, former chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

“You’re not only going to be able to get more data through and be able to have more people in a unit access an image or a video of something or maybe rehearse an operation, you’re going to be able to also move around in those frequencies and be less detectable.”

For the Pentagon that means the U.S is in a race with China for dominance in 5G, with the foreign power appearing to be ahead. Experts warn that could pose national security risks here as China increases its wireless market share globally and as other companies rely on Chinese products to build out networks.

A spokesperson from the Pentagon declined to comment for this article, saying that they can’t speak to 5G and security on the national level.

But the Trump administration singled 5G out as a priority in its National Security Strategy.

The strategy, released in late 2017, names “deploying a secure 5G Internet capability nationwide” as one of the infrastructure improvements that will “increase national competitiveness, benefit the environment and improve our quality of life.”

In January, Axios published a leaked document showing the National Security Council considered a proposal to pay for and build a national 5G network, citing threats from China.

“China has achieved a dominant position in the manufacture and operation of network infrastructure,” the document said. It also warned that “China is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain.”

The document landed with a thud on Capitol Hill and at the FCC, and there is little sign the administration plans to move forward with a nationalized 5G network. But its existence underscored the administration’s view of 5G as a national security issue.

“This comes up repeatedly in the U.S. because people are worried about relying on Chinese technology and they probably should be. It’s clear we have a competitor in this national security space, of a kind we’ve never had before in China,” said Jim Lewis, a technology and intelligence expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The Chinese are pretty frank about how they want to dominate 5G.”

National security concerns reared their head again when Trump intervened in March to stop Broadcom’s attempted hostile takeover of the San Diego–based chipmaker Qualcomm. Again, Trump cited concerns about China.

While Broadcom was based in Singapore at the time, the administration argued the takeover could allow China to further overtake the United States by hindering Qualcomm’s investments in developing 5G technology.

Paul Triolo, who specializes in global technology policy at the Eurasia Group, said there are two main concerns about 5G and national security.

Of the four main companies that supply equipment that will be necessary to build 5G infrastructure, two are Chinese: ZTE and Huawei.

The first concern is that having that equipment in U.S. devices could facilitate Chinese espionage, he said. The second, he said, is that China may be able to shut off U.S. networks in the event of a conflict.

Triolo described both concerns as “valid but tricky.”

“These companies are just selling the equipment,” he said. “The operators actually operate the equipment. Depending on how the contract is structured, the equipment suppliers might have no access to the equipment or might only be updating software.”

The Pentagon, he added, is also worried that if China “wins” the 5G race, its model will become dominant around the world. In that case, he said, the Pentagon will be need to worry about Chinese equipment in devices everywhere it operates.

“Something like the Defense Department this concerns because they operate globally,” Triolo said. “There is a sort of broad concern that anywhere that DOD is operating and the underlying is sort of built with Chinese equipment, that’s a bad thing. But again, that security issue depends on all these other factors I mentioned, which is who is running the network, who’s operating the network and how much access they have.”

Triolo dismissed another concern, that China has an undue influence over the global organizations that develop telecommunications standards.

But Simpson, previously vice director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, expressed concern that “China has shrewdly advanced their standing with the rest of the telecommunications technical governance world” while U.S. influence is waning.

Despite the worries about China, Simpson said 5G presents many exciting opportunities for the Pentagon. Much like the promise of 5G for telemedicine, Simpson said the military could use the technology to remotely operate in dangerous environments.

But, he cautioned, the Pentagon needs to conduct a risk analysis.

“DOD will really want to look at its plans going forward and determine, is it OK to have foreign elements within the supply chain for radios that take them into combat, and if it’s not, then they should be working to introduce some domestic sources for that supply chain,” Simpson said.

Other moves in the administration on being more competitive on 5G have largely circled around “trying to stop something,” according to Lewis, a former Commerce Department official specializing in high-tech issues involving China.

“Where we haven’t done anything is thinking about, what are the policies we need to accelerate innovation and 5G in the U.S.?”

Lewis said the Pentagon should focus on building a strong base to support the development of innovative technologies.

“We don’t know what the Pentagon will be able to do with 5G. But having the ability to turn to an industry that is strong and well-positioned to come up with new technologies, that’s really the core of national security now,” he said.

“It’s the core of security, it’s the core of competitiveness.”