The Pentagon has expressed dismay over Google's refusal to help it develop drone technology. Photo: iStock
For the Pentagon, 5G could be a force multiplier, especially when paired with highly accurate weapons and very fast defensive systems. Photo: iStock

There is a general agreement in Washington that 5G is going to be a commercial success and a national security disaster. But, while the alarm bells have been sounded by former senior military and civilian leaders and by currently serving officials, including the US secretary of defense, solutions seem elusive.

If the US does not find a way out of the morass, the consequences will be grim. Not only will America’s war-fighting capability be impaired, but even its ability to defend against hypersonic weapons will be undermined because rapid communications are essential for intercepting them.

Why is 5G so important?

The 5G revolution will rapidly replace wired networks worldwide because it is faster and has greater bandwidth, assuming the new networks expand rapidly enough to keep up with demand. This is projected to happen in the next five to 10 years. While families will get more rapid delivery of internet services such as video streaming, the commercial and government implications are more important because vast amounts of information and data can be moved far more rapidly. This will enable new and emerging technologies.

A decade back, the Europeans invested billions in the Galileo satellite project, a system of GPS satellites to compete against the US GPS system. The advantage of Galileo is a high-precision, passive hydrogen maser atomic clock in each satellite that is accurate to 28 billionths of a second. Potentially, Galileo could provide coordinates (to a vehicle, train or aircraft) that were accurate to within a few inches.

Among other things, traffic could be regulated by stuffing more cars into existing roadways if they were all centrally managed by Galileo and had either onboard or external computers (e.g, cloud-based). One of the impediments to taking advantage of Galileo’s GPS accuracy (far better than the US GPS even when not scrambled) is for very fast communications networks. 5G makes that possible. (In future, it also makes it possible – assuming all road vehicles are equipped with these capabilities – for an enemy to snarl traffic and create havoc from coast to coast.)

For military operations that consume vast amounts of data and exploit GPS and other sensors, the situation is similar. 5G could be a force multiplier, especially when paired with highly accurate weapons and very fast defensive systems.

Unfortunately, 5G is vulnerable from a number of angles. It is controlled mostly by a single vendor in China that can manipulate source codes to back-feed information to it, whether commercial or militarily. The vendor will know the location of every 5G endpoint or consumer, and 5G signals can be jammed or corrupted.

To avoid this, the Pentagon has been pondering running its future 5G network on different frequencies – much higher than the so-called middle frequencies that will be dominated by commercial 5G networks. These fall into extremely high-frequency slots on the order of 24 to 300 gigahertz (anything above 90 gigahertz is barely exploited today).

Commercial 5G networks will operate in what is called the “below sub-G” frequencies, which is below 6 gigahertz. The higher frequencies – 24 to 300 gigahertz – are known as mmWave (millimeter wave). mmWave is used already in military products such as fire control radars and in active protection systems.

Ninety to 300 gigahertz is very short range and line of sight, with limited ability to penetrate buildings and other structures, above or underground. While it avoids jamming in part because of its short-range and line of site qualities, it isn’t clear a system running at these very high frequencies can be useful over long distances. If the signal had to be converted to commercial 5G networks and travel over commercial networks, it would become just as vulnerable as if the entire network operated in the so-called middle frequencies.

A second, even more profound objection to the use of special high frequencies is that a high-frequency Pentagon 5-G network would not be compatible with commercial hardware. Because the Pentagon’s purchasing capability is far below the volume demand for commercial items such as cellular phones, the Pentagon would need to build a special industrial base capability to support its needs.

An alternative would be to put the entire US – or the US and other friendly countries, both commercial and military – on the high-frequency standard and avoid the Chinese alternative entirely. Today the US does not appear to have the leverage to engage its friends on a venture of this kind, even if the US was willing to underwrite the development costs.

Of course, just as the US went almost on its own with the CDMA cellular system (as opposed to GSM) in past years, the times have changed radically (and while CDMA lives on primarily in the form of Verizon in the United States, GSM is available from a number of other cellular carriers). Most cellular phones are made outside the United States, with the largest maker being China. The go-it-alone approach would also require a domestic industrial base for cellular systems (everything from the phones to network hardware) and there would not be any international market for such products.

A very high-frequency network could live on top of but not be connected to commercial 5G, making it possible to have a secure resource dedicated to government, military and critical infrastructure use. That could help secure cloud computing for the Pentagon, which otherwise faces a growing national security danger. And it could lead an effort to replace commercial off-the-shelf computers and networks with specially secured computers and networks integrated into a government-critical infrastructure-wide system that lives on very high-frequency 5G and beyond.

There is no apparent reason that the US, under the hybrid approach, can’t work with allies and friends, enabling them to protect their government and critical infrastructure assets. There is already precedent for this in NATO where a project has been underway for some time to secure phones in the defense bloc under the NATO Communications and Information Agency. The ideas developed in this operation should be expanded to critical infrastructure components and broadened beyond NATO, particularly to America’s Asia allies. This would go a long way to provide confidence in security measures in places such as Australia, Japan and Taiwan.

Also read: 5G policy ‘biggest strategic disaster in US history’

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