The Overlooked Military Implications of the 5G Debate

The Overlooked Military Implications of the 5G Debate
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
The Overlooked Military Implications of the 5G Debate
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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Erica D. Borghard is an Assistant Professor at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. Shawn W. Lonergan is a U.S. Army Reserve officer assigned to 75th Innovation Command and a Research Scholar at the Army Cyber Institute. You can follow them @eborghard and @Shawn_Lonergan.

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect the policy or position of the Army Cyber Institute, U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

Last week, the U.S. Defense Innovation Board released a report outlining the risks and opportunities for the United States in the global race to develop 5G. This followed a damning report published by the United Kingdom’s Huawei Cyber Security Centre Oversight Board detailing how the Chinese telecom giant’s 5G products, particularly its software, contained significant vulnerabilities and that the company had failed to remedy persistent poor security practices. 5G network architecture uses high frequency spectrum to enable significantly faster speeds to process larger amounts of data with lower latency and greater device connectivity. While much attention has been paid to economic and espionage implications of a potential Chinese lead in developing and operating 5G infrastructure, there are important military implications that remain largely overlooked.

There are economic implications for which entities can secure the greatest global market share of 5G technology. Technological innovation drives economic growth, job creation, and global economic influence. Huawei may have a long-term market advantage over U.S and Western telecoms because the former has been able to offer 5G products at far cheaper rates than the latter. Furthermore, there are also concerns that Chinese-built 5G technology is likely to contain backdoors that could be used to enable Chinese economic or national security espionage. It is unlikely that Beijing would actively monitor all of the content of the data that comes across Huawei owned or operated infrastructure (although it may collect and analyze metadata). However, it is conceivable that Huawei would get a proverbial “tap on the shoulder” from Beijing to share pertinent information in specific instances. This may include individually targeting senior corporate executives, which is enabled by the millimeter wave frequency that 5G networks employ.

The military applications of 5G technology have vital strategic and battlefield implications for the U.S. Historically, the U.S. military has reaped enormous advantages from employing cutting edge technology on the battlefield. 5G technology holds similar innovative potential. Perhaps most obviously, the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure will have a direct impact on improving military communications. However, it will also produce cascading effects on the development of other kinds of military technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. For instance, artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, such as those used in the Department of Defense’s Project Maven, could be greatly enhanced when leveraging the data processing speeds made possible through 5G infrastructure. As an era of great power competition emerges between the United States and China, the United States has a compelling strategic interest in being at the forefront of these new technologies.

The United States and its allies must also consider the tactical and operational implications on the battlefield of conducting conventional or counterinsurgency operations in an area with Chinese owned or operated 5G infrastructure. This concern stems from the nature of the relationship between Huawei, an ostensibly private company, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While Huawei’s founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei proclaimed in a February 2019 interview on CBS This Morning that the company never has and never would provide information to the Chinese government, many experts are skeptical. Under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, the CCP has the authority to monitor and investigate domestic and international companies as well as direct organizations to assist with government espionage efforts. As such, it is conceivable that Huawei will be required to hand over its data to the Chinese government for collection and analysis.

Due to this reality, the United States must consider and be prepared to conduct overseas contingency or counterterrorism operations in areas where Chinese telecommunications infrastructure is widely proliferated, thus restricting the United States’ ability to rely on indigenous telecoms. As noted by US AFRICOM Commander General Thomas Waldhauser, this has already become an issue in Africa where Chinese telecommunications companies are poised to dominate. The integrity of U.S. military communications systems that rely on 5G networks could be undermined at key phases of an operation. For example, if the United States is conducting a military operation in an area of interest to China, it is plausible that the Chinese government could leverage Huawei to intercept or even deny military communications. Furthermore, Chinese telecom infrastructure dominance in a theater of operations may limit the U.S. military’s ability to conduct precision targeting that leverages signals intelligence collection on 5G telecommunications networks. 

The strategic and battlefield implications of who owns and operates 5G infrastructure around the world underscores the national security importance of 5G. The U.S. government and its allies should more systematically assess both the opportunities and risks associated with conducting future military operations in environments that rely on Chinese technology.

To date, the U.S. government has devoted significant energy to persuading its allies and partners to follow the United States in prohibiting Chinese telecoms, particularly Huawei, from building and/or operating 5G infrastructure. However, its diplomatic approach has been met with varying degrees of success. While some countries such as Australia and Japan have fallen in line with the U.S. stance on Huawei, many others have not. The European Commission’s recent 5G recommendations for member states dismissed a ban on Chinese telecoms. British intelligence has reportedly maintained that the security risks associated with Huawei can be sufficiently managed, and New Zealand, after initially bandwagoning with the United States in December 2018, abruptly reversed course in February 2019. This is concerning for the United States because New Zealand and the UK  are members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance. Many allies have refused an outright ban of Huawei because of the company’s ability to offer 5G products at far cheaper rates than Western telecoms. 

It is clear that U.S. diplomatic efforts are not working. The reality is that the bottom line is largely driving decision-making. Therefore, rather than take a purely negative approach, the United States should consider using positive inducements to make its 5G products more appealing. While the United States should not strive to mirror China’s top-down approach to innovation, it should work with allies to use market incentives to make U.S.- and Western-developed 5G infrastructure and products more competitive. Furthermore, the U.S. military needs to anticipate that its use of native telecommunications infrastructure in a future operating environment may be compromised, limited, or denied. The U.S. military will inevitably need greater bandwidth on the tactical edge and this should be an imperative that drives investment in research and development to address this challenge.

Technological innovation was at the crux of the United States’ comparative military and economic advantage in the twentieth century. In this contemporary great power competition, U.S. failure to innovate at the scientific and technological frontier will have direct (and deleterious) effects for the United States on the distribution of power in the international system over the long term.

This article appeared originally at Council on Foreign Relations Blog.

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