With 5G broadband networks still being rolled out worldwide, the US and China are racing for supremacy in next-generation 6G, with significant implications for future warfighting.
An August report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) notes that China is following a centralized command model in applying 6G technology to military purposes. On the other side, the US is relying more on enabling lower levels of command and operators to take the initiative to make critical decisions.
The IISS report says that 6G technology may play a key role in China’s hypersonic weapons program, including in solving the current communication blackout at hypersonic speeds.
In January, South China Morning Post reported that Chinese researchers had developed a 6G laser device that can penetrate the signal-blocking plasma layer on the surface of missiles in hypersonic flight. The report also noted that the breakthrough has other military applications, such as detecting stealth aircraft or high-speed space communications.
Apart from 6G’s potential application in China’s hypersonic weapons program, the report mentions that the technology can improve space-based surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, turbocharge data processing and enable more devices to be connected across multiple frequencies.
It also says that integrating AI and machine learning across 6G applications can allow the military to leverage big data to improve decision-making, defense mobilization, and command and control. 6G could also provide virtual and extended reality training for military personnel.
Asia Times has reported that China’s fighter pilot training has been criticized as heavily scripted and dependent on ground control, which prevents pilots from taking the initiative or making decisions on the fly to adapt to rapidly changing battlefield conditions. However, 6G technology could significantly improve China’s fighter pilot training, providing more realistic and unpredictable scenarios that accurately mirror real-life combat situations.
While the IISS report mentions that China’s military approach to 6G mirrors that of the US, it notes that the US has a more human-centric approach, viewing it as an enabling technology for operators and lower levels of command to cope with battlefield uncertainty and take the initiative in decision-making.
It also says that the US aims to leverage 6G to organize data between itself and its allies to increase processing speed.
The IISS report also mentions that the US views 6G as a leapfrog technology that will help it maintain its military edge, emphasizing at-scale prototyping and experimentation for its development, alongside collaboration with industry leaders, other government agencies and international partners.
In this regard, the US-South Korea partnership on critical and emerging technologies such as 6G could be significant. According to IDTechEX, South Korea’s flagship tech firm, Samsung, has ten times more 5G-related patents than the next ten patentors combined and is likewise investing heavily in 6G and the leading-edge chips that will drive the technology.
The contrast between China’s centralized but rigid and the US’s hands-off but less coherent approaches to developing 6G technology for military purposes also extends to their research bases. The IISS report notes that China’s state-centric approach to developing 6G enables it to channel all its resources under direct government control to influence and manipulate global standards-setting.
The report notes that this statist approach has helped China to build its telecoms industry from being a negligible player in the 1980s to a position of advantage in 5G telecoms, providing a solid base for 6G technology and undercutting competitor costs by as much as 30%. However, the report notes that China faces significant constraints in developing 6G technology, such as reliance on foreign inputs, US sanctions and export controls.
In contrast, the IISS states that the US has not prioritized the development of next-generation telecom networks to the extent of China, notably in developing 5G infrastructure and services.
Although the IISS report mentions the long-term erosion of the US telecoms industry, it also highlights the US strength in innovation and that US firms are well-positioned in 6G-enabling technologies such as software and semiconductors. It also mentions that the US is adopting a state-centric approach in developing critical strategic technologies to regain its lost momentum, potentially taking note of China’s advantages with this approach.
In the US context, a state-led method involves establishing partnerships with allies and partner nations to accelerate technology development to leverage US strengths and exclude China.
The report also cautions against a global network infrastructure standards conflict resulting from the diverging interests of China and the US, alongside the rollout of next-generation telecoms technology to third-party markets.
Asia Times has previously reported that China is gradually catching up with US leadership in establishing technological standards while noting that politicizing them risks fragmenting global standards and disrupting trade and innovation.
Besides China and the US, the EU, Japan and others are implementing international standards, meaning a US or China standards monopoly will be difficult, if not implausible.
The China-US race for 6G supremacy cuts across various fields ranging from defense and security, economics, politics and even society.
But even as the rival superpowers seek to leverage 6G for a new military edge, the decisive factor may be which of the two can provide 6G technology as a global public good, cementing its legitimacy as a global technology leader.
Just as the US dollar became the de facto currency for international trade and cemented US dominance in the global financial system, widespread adaptation of either Chinese or US 6G technology may establish either superpower as the center of the technology-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Alternatively, the ongoing race for 6G and technology standards conflict could result in a bifurcated global internet with China controlling one side and the US the other.