The Department of Defense’s new strategy for fifth-generation (5G) wireless technology does not mention China or any of its telecommunications companies by name, but it’s clear that the document was written with more than the U.S. armed forces in mind.
The DOD sees 5G broadband coverage as a “critical strategic technology” that private industry must aggressively develop with geopolitics in mind.
“[T]hose nations that master advanced communications technologies and ubiquitous connectivity will have a long-term economic and military advantage,” the nine-page document states.
To help the U.S. telecommunications industry win the battle of the networks, the military has already offered its bases as testing grounds for U.S companies and launched other programs to “accelerate” 5G development. The goal is to achieve technical advantage on a nation-state level.
Several technical hurdles remain on the road to broad 5G deployment inside and outside the military: apportioning the bands of spectrum for 5G signals; building out extensive — and expensive — new network infrastructure; and having mobile devices that can support 5G’s speed and power.
As U.S. telecom companies tout the speed and security of 5G to consumers, the military sees similar advantages. Once 5G-enabled mobile devices are readily available, the systems could reduce latency and accelerate the transmission of vast amounts of data across battle domains. The DOD says it could “transform the way militaries operate.”
Acting with ‘urgency’
The Air Force has a leg up on the race to field 5G for the military. It already operates and protects satellites that could be a part of 5G infrastructure, and its fighter jets stand to gain considerable connectivity from faster networks, especially before and after missions. The service is expanding a program to wire its bases with 5G infrastructure, Chief Technology Officer Frank Konieczny said Wednesday during an AFCEA C4I virtual event. Other services have also placed stock in developing 5G as a means to enhance their operations. The strategy calls for the Pentagon office to coordinate inter-service and inter-agency work on 5G.
“If DoD acts with urgency, it can utilize its unique partnerships, expertise, and resources to accelerate 5G innovation and deployment,” the strategy states.
Beyond testing on bases, the military will also spend its own research and development dollars to supplement the U.S. research ecosystem to try and keep pace with how fast China has been able to build out 5G infrastructure. Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act gave $275 million for 5G research funding.
The strategy also calls for developing “security principles for equipment, architectures, and operations.” The DOD singles out zero-trust architecture for user authentication as the ideal way to protect the new networks. Beyond just DOD cybersecurity policy, though, the department says it wants to pursue the development of international standards on the design and security of networks.
“In-depth protection also requires adoption of compliance standards for 5G design, cybersecurity for 5G infrastructure, and implementation of a ‘zero-trust’ security model,” the strategy states.
One of the thornier issues for the military is access to the electromagnetic spectrum space for 5G signals. There is a set amount of space in the airwaves for 5G and other global communications systems to operate in, like the Global Positioning System (GPS). The strategy calls for developing “millimeter wave technology” that can more effectively use spectrum space for 5G.
The DOD is currently in a battle with the Federal Communications Commission over the commission’s handling of the spectrum space known as the “L-Band” to telecommunications company Ligado Networks. Military and IT leaders say Ligado’s work to develop 5G will disrupt its sensitive signals used by GPS in near-by spectrum. Ligado will drown out the communications satellites use to map movement on Earth, DOD CIO Dana Deasy told Congress in May.