America’s Answer to Huawei

The Pentagon is relying on U.S. commercial carriers to help win the 5G race against China.

Richard Yu, the head of Huawei's consumer business group, speaks on stage during a presentation to reveal Huawei's latest smartphones in Munich on Sept. 19.
Richard Yu, the head of Huawei's consumer business group, speaks on stage during a presentation to reveal Huawei's latest smartphones in Munich on Sept. 19. CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. military is used to being ahead of the curve. In the 1980s, the Pentagon’s investment in breakthrough technologies like stealth and the internet helped win the Cold War with the Soviet Union and cemented the United States’ status as the world’s sole superpower.

Today, the United States is at a similar inflection point in its competition with China. But this time the U.S. government—which has grown clunky and risk averse in its dealing with innovation in the commercial sector—is ill equipped to lead in a number of key technology areas that are going to define the future of warfare.

One of those key areas is fifth-generation wireless networks and technology, known as 5G. 5G will offer exponentially faster data speeds and volume than today’s mobile networks, enabling a host of new technologies that promise to revolutionize the entire global economy, in such fields as self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. 

For the U.S. military, 5G has significant battlefield implications. Transitioning to 5G will allow larger volumes of data to be shared in real time across vast distances—whether a drone sending video footage back to the command center or soldiers radioing in their location—enabling the Defense Department to link compartmentalized legacy systems into a single broader network, instantly providing a comprehensive picture of the battlefield. In future conflicts with lethal new weapons like hypersonic missiles—which can travel a mile per second—this kind of speed and accuracy will be key to averting potentially disastrous errors. 

But there is a growing consensus that China is leading the way when it comes to 5G. In the first half of 2019, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei held a 28 percent share of the global telecommunications market. Across the world, both Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese company, are offering their services to build individual countries’ 5G networks. Beijing plans to deploy the first standalone 5G network in 2020.

“The industry consensus is that Huawei is ahead of the other 5G equipment manufacturers in developing their hardware,” said Christopher Yoo, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in law and technology. 

However, Yoo cautioned that the race for 5G is just beginning. The industry is still looking for the right model to deploy 5G commercially—and the future is difficult to predict, he said.

Eric Chewning, chief of staff for U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, put the 5G competition in more optimistic terms: “We’re in the first quarter of a football game, and both sides have points on the board,” he said in an exclusive interview at the Pentagon.

Chewning and a Pentagon task force dedicated to supporting 5G development are betting that their team has the winning long-term strategy. The Defense Department says that innovations in 5G technology will be made in the private sector, not by the U.S. government. So, rather than build its own 5G network and telecommunications equipment, the Pentagon is striving to find ways to enable and incentivize innovation in the commercial sector, Chewning said. It will be tapping into work already being done by the four major U.S. carriers—Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile—which are well into their 5G road map. 

“5G is a good example of where we are going to be a subscale buyer,” said Chewning, meaning that the Defense Department will buy 5G services at a scale suited to its needs, rather than build its own network. “The key for us then is: How do we leverage that commercial-sector innovation, while recognizing that our commercial ecosystem is in a competition with the Chinese commercial ecosystem?”

Although the commercial sector is expected to bear most of the cost burden of developing 5G, the initiative will not be free for taxpayers. This year, the department’s 5G directorate is working with a $52 million budget, but officials anticipate costs will significantly increase as efforts ramp up. Senate appropriators have recommended allocating more than $400 million for the department’s “5G-XG” program next year. That money will go toward installing commercial 5G networks and applications at various military bases for testing, developing new cybersecurity safeguards to protect military networks, and planning for the next generations of telecommunications technology—6G and beyond. 

But there is one key logistical obstacle the U.S. government must overcome: There is only so much spectrum available. In the United States, much of the mid-band spectrum—which much of the rest of the world, including China, has prioritized for 5G buildout—are exclusive federal bands, used extensively by the Defense Department. Because large chunks of the spectrum are not available for commercial use, U.S. carriers have prioritized high-band frequencies for 5G deployment.

Both frequency ranges have pros and cons and are used for different purposes. Mid-band frequencies can travel farther and penetrate through dense obstacles such as walls and buildings, so they are ideal for providing services to a wide area. But they are more limited in the speed and the amount of information that can be transmitted. By contrast, high-band frequencies can carry large amounts of data at faster speeds but have limited range and can’t pass through certain obstacles. Here’s what it boils down to: 5G providers using high-band must build many more cell sites in a given area to get the same coverage as they would if they were using mid-band. 

Ideally, the Pentagon wants to leverage both. To support commercial growth in the mid-band, the department is working on “dynamic spectrum sharing,” a skill that Chewning said will be a “differentiator” when it comes to the 5G competition. As more users emerge, the already crowded spectrum will only get more congested, so learning how to share limited bandwidth will be critical to making efficient use of the spectrum, he argued.

For example, the Defense Department and the private sector are experimenting with ways to share a 3.5 GHz band called Citizens Broadband Radio Service, traditionally used for naval radars. It’s a tricky concept to implement, requiring sensors to automatically detect and communicate when the Navy does and does not need to use the frequency. But if it works, this “dynamic spectrum utilization” approach could become a model for how to more efficiently use other spectrum ranges, putting the United States at “a competitive advantage,” said one senior defense official.

“All of the 5G spectrum bands are important,” the senior defense official said. “We will have the ability to match the band and its associated capability to the needs of the mission.”

But where the Pentagon believes it can really gain the edge is in the high-band spectrum—and it anticipates that allies will ultimately prefer this range as well. High-band frequencies may be better suited, for instance, for setting up virtual networks for smart factories—or for sensitive military operations, the official said. 

“The high frequencies are less detectable, because they do not propagate as far, so that is actually an advantage if an adversary is searching for our forces,” the official explained.

The United States is gambling that this approach will give it an edge on other nations, such as China, that have not prioritized the higher frequencies—not just on the battlefield but in the commercial space as well.

“We actually see that as a real competitive advantage that our defense industries and our telecom industries as well are saying, ‘Hey, we like [high-band] as part of our business strategy,’” the official said. 

But relying solely on high-band spectrum could pose challenges for the military, particularly when trying to operate over large distances such as the Pacific Ocean, because it requires line of sight, a type of communication that only works where transmit and receive stations are in view of each other without any obstacles in the way, Yoo said. It is also more costly and time-consuming to build enough cell sites to make 5G work over large distances. It’s not clear how the Defense Department would solve that problem in the Pacific.

“I don’t think we will be left behind, but will we be at a distinct disadvantage compared to other countries? Yes,” said Emil Olbrich, the vice president of networks with Signals Research Group. 

Critics also worry this is an untenable situation for the U.S. commercial telecommunications industry. If other countries do not adopt the high-band approach, defense contracts alone are likely not enough to sustain a healthy U.S. industrial base. The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board warned in a recent 5G study that: “The United States may find itself without a global supply base if it continues to pursue a spectrum range divergent from the rest of the world.”  

“There are grave concerns that if the U.S. military focuses just on the high band and the rest of the world focuses on the low band, the equipment will be more expensive and the basic technology supporting the apps will be less sophisticated,” Yoo said. “We risk cutting ourselves off from the larger development cycle.”

Still, one advantage of focusing on a different spectrum range than the rest of the world is that it will allow U.S. carriers to better protect their networks, Yoo said. U.S. officials say that using telecommunications networks and equipment produced by Huawei and other Chinese companies could enable Beijing to spy on the West—a claim the firm has repeatedly denied.

“Using off-the-shelf technology developed for wide-scale uses carries some risks,” Yoo said. “When everything is attached to the internet, it increases what we call the attack surface of the systems. If you find one vulnerability, you can get at everything.”

Network security is a major priority for the Defense Department, Chewning said. Using Chinese equipment could compromise commercial or defense network “ecosystems” at any point along the supply chain, he stressed.

“It’s like you’ve got to play this blended offensive defensive game, where we are cultivating and curating the ecosystem for our own use, but we are also very mindful that we have to manage the supply chain concerns with the Chinese,” Chewning said. 

There is another glaring problem to the Pentagon’s plan: Key allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany are resisting U.S. pressure to ban Huawei. This could present a challenge for information- and intelligence-sharing between traditional allies. Chewning acknowledged that this is a concern but said the department is looking to work through it in concert with international partners.

“There is a societal question for our allies,” Chewning said. “Are they willing to cede that level of presumed privacy to an actor that doesn’t have their best interests at stake?”

This story has been updated to include additional comments from a senior defense official. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Tag: China

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