“A post-Western wireless ecosystem”: Takeaways from the Defense Innovation Board 5G report

20 June 2019

By Peter Bloom

In April the Defense Innovation Board released a report entitled “The 5G Ecosystem: Risks & Opportunities for DoD. For clarity, DoD is the Department of Defense of the USA. The report was authored by two men, one of whom is the vice president of wireless services at Google and the other is a partner in a venture capital firm with ties to the intelligence community. I mention this because it seems important to note that the paper was written by people close to the defense industry but who are not employees of the DoD, and who were commissioned by an entity whose job it is to provide “independent advice and recommendations on innovative means to address future challenges” to the DoD. In other words, this is a report of recommendations, and not something the DoD will necessarily heed.

I decided to do a quick write-up of this report because it deals with a few interesting topics, some of which have been grabbing headlines, and others that have not. The report seems to have been sparked by the realization that, unlike with 4G, the USA is not in the lead when it comes to 5G and this puts the country at an economic and national security disadvantage. The first big point the report makes is that the US is mistakenly pursuing a mmWave spectrum strategy for 5G, while China and most other countries are focusing on spectrum below 6GHz. Millimeter-wave or mmWave are very high frequencies (24GHz and above) that are good for transferring lots of data but don’t have very good range. Interestingly, it is the DoD itself that is the main obstacle to sub-6GHz 5G networks in the USA, as they hold most of the crucial spectrum between 3 and 5GHz. The report is up-front about this and goes into fair length about how the DoD must share as much of this spectrum as possible with operators to allow them to build out 5G networks.

Nevertheless, the spectrum piece of the report is really about something larger.

“As sub-6 [GHz] becomes the global standard, it is likely that China, the current leader in that space, will lead the charge. This would create security risks for DoD operations overseas that rely on networks with Chinese components in the supply chain. Even if the United States were to restrict use of Chinese equipment suppliers domestically, the United States is not a big enough market in wireless to prevent China’s 5G suppliers from continuing to increase market share globally, resulting in significant pressure on a declining set of vendors that would serve the U.S. market.”

What is refreshing from this report is that you actually get a better sense of what is behind all the blustering coming from the Trump administration around blocking Chinese telecom vendors like Huawei from doing business in the USA. It is two-fold. One issue is simply that China is doing a better job of making affordable, high-quality 5G network solutions, which gives them an economic advantage going forward as most countries will end up using this equipment in their networks. So if there is a way to artificially slow them down, then it is supposedly in the US’ best interest to do so. Hence the embargo that started a few weeks ago.

The second issue is that having this Chinese equipment embedded in networks all around the world poses security risks for the DoD itself:

“DoD is facing a future 5G environment where its supply chain will be increasingly vulnerable or compromised, from the subcomponent level to the integrated network level, as well as the services associated with each. In previous decades, DoD was able to operate on bespoke systems that fulfilled its unique requirements due to its position as a large user relative to the rest of the commercial world, but that privilege no longer exists. Commercial sector tech development and usage dwarfs that of DoD, and it is no longer practical for DoD to build and operate on siloed, bespoke systems and architecture. As a result, DoD is increasingly dependent on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment and commercial services, and the same will hold true for the future 5G ecosystem.”

As 5G networks get built out, the DoD will increasingly operate on these networks, and, as the argument goes, if those networks are built using Chinese-manufactured and designed systems, it will be impossible for DoD to secure their communications. The report does not go into much detail about what DoD actually will do on these networks (those parts are in classified annexes), although they mention hyper-sonic weapons and nuclear command, control and communications. The report also mentions how:

“5G will increase DoD’s ability to link multiple systems into a broader network while sharing information in real time, improving communication across Services, geographies, and domains while developing a common picture of the battlefield to improve situational awareness.”

So, some really important things if you are the Department of Defense.

In summary, the US recognizes that it is falling behind China in terms of its ability to be a world leader on 5G and due to the massive impact these next generation networks will have, particularly on security and warfare, this puts the US in a bad position. The report closes by making some recommendations:

Recommendation #1

DoD needs to make a plan for sharing sub-6 GHz spectrum to shape the future 5G ecosystem, including an assessment of how much and which bandwidths need to be shared, within what timeframe, and how that sharing will impact DoD systems.

This is quite welcome news, in my opinion, because it provides a concrete solution to the issue of what frequencies 5G will operate on in the USA. Sub-6 GHz at least has the potential to be used to connect larger areas versus mmWave, which if we cross our fingers and stand on one leg might mean some new people are able to access services.

Recommendation #2

DoD must prepare to operate in a “post-Western” wireless ecosystem. This plan should include R&D investments towards system security and resiliency on an engineering and strategic level.

This phrase “post-Western” wireless ecosystem” is, without a doubt, my favorite thing in the whole report. Why? Because it perfectly encapsulates the real issue underlying the geopolitics of 5G, which is that the US is losing to China. The East is surpassing the West, and this reality and fear applies to so much more than just telecommunications.

Recommendation #3

DoD should advocate for adjusted trade policies to discourage vulnerabilities in its supply chain on the grounds that they put national security assets and missions at risk.

Seems obvious enough, although it smacks of hypocrisy in that the US and the West’s security agencies are constantly and tirelessly figuring out ways to introduce and exploit vulnerabilities in its own telecommunications infrastructure and that of others. To

Recommendation #4

See Classified Annex.

I think this has to do with the actual warfaring and defense aspect of what the DoD does or will do on these networks, but who knows.