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Updated October 8, 2020
National Security Implications of Fifth Generation (5G)
The fifth generation (5G) of mobile technologies will
telecommunications companies are focusing on the less
increase the speed of data transfer and improve bandwidth
expensive sub-6 approach, while some U.S.
over existing fourth generation (4G) technologies, in turn
telecommunication providers are focused on MMW
enabling new military and commercial applications. 5G
deployments and others on sub-6.
technologies are expected to support interconnected or
autonomous devices, such as smart homes, self-driving
The Department of Defense (DOD), however, holds large
vehicles, precision agriculture systems, industrial
portions of the usable spectrum. Although DOD uses
machinery, and advanced robotics. 5G for the military
certain MMW frequencies for high-profile military
could additionally improve intelligence, surveillance, and
applications such as Advanced Extremely High Frequency
reconnaissance (ISR) systems and processing; enable new
satellites that provide assured global communications for
methods of command and control (C2); and streamline
U.S. forces, it extensively uses sub-6 frequencies—leaving
logistics systems for increased efficiency, among other
less sub-6 availability in the United States than in other
uses. As 5G technologies are developed and deployed,
countries. The Defense Innovation Board (DIB) advised
Congress may consider policies for spectrum management
DOD to consider sharing sub-6 spectrum to facilitate the
and national security, as well as implications for U.S.
build-out of 5G networks and the development of 5G
technologies used in the sub-6 band. While DOD has been
moving toward greater spectrum sharing, it has expressed
concern that sharing presents operational, interference, and
5G technologies plan to use three segments of the
security issues for DOD users. As an alternative to
electromagnetic spectrum (“the spectrum”): high band (also
spectrum sharing, some analysts have argued that portions
called millimeter wave, or MMW), which operates between
of the sub-6 spectrum should be reserved for commercial
around 24 and 300 GHz; mid band, which operates between
use. This would require DOD to relocate certain
1 GHz and 6 GHz; and low band, which operates below 1
applications to other parts of the spectrum. The DIB
GHz. Mid band and low band are often collectively referred
estimates this approach would take around 10 years to
to as sub-6 (see Figure 1)
complete, as opposed to 5 years for spectrum sharing.
Figure 1. 5G Proposed Spectrum
National Security Concerns
According to a DIB assessment, China is the current leader
in sub-6 technologies and is likely to deploy the world’s
first 5G wide-area network. Chinese companies, which
often receive government subsidies (e.g., subsidized land
for facilities, R&D grants), are therefore well-positioned as
global 5G suppliers. Huawei has signed contracts for the
construction of 5G infrastructure in around 30 countries,
including Iceland, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
Some experts are concerned that vulnerabilities in Chinese
equipment could be used to conduct cyberattacks or
Millimeter waves allow faster data transfer rates, which
military/industrial espionage. These experts claim
some telecommunications companies argue is required for
vulnerabilities were introduced through the poor business
autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and other data-
practices of many Chinese companies. However, they note
intensive applications like smart cities; however, MMW
that vulnerabilities could also be intentionally introduced
travel comparatively short distances and can be absorbed by
for malicious purposes. China’s National Intelligence Law,
rain or disrupted by physical objects such as buildings and
enacted in June 2017, declares that “any organization and
vehicles. As a result, 5G MMW technologies require
citizen shall, in accordance with the law, support, provide
installing a higher number of cell sites—at much higher
assistance, and cooperate in national intelligence work, and
cost and on a much slower deployment timeline than the
guard the secrecy of any national intelligence work that
sub-6 approach. 5G deployment thus relies on MMW for
they are aware of.” Some analysts interpret this law as
high-speed, high-bandwidth communications and on sub-6
requiring Chinese companies to cooperate with intelligence
waves for nationwide coverage.
services, including compelling installation of backdoors to
provide private data to the government.
Telecommunication companies around the world are
deploying 5G in different ways. Chinese
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National Security Implications of Fifth Generation (5G) Mobile Technologies
Other analysts argue that the risks posed by Chinese
such as swarming (i.e., cooperative behavior in which
telecommunications equipment vary depending on the
vehicles autonomously coordinate to achieve a task).
equipment’s location within the cellular network
architecture. Most cellular networks are broken into two
5G technologies could also be incorporated into ISR
groups: the core network, which provides the gateway to
systems, which increasingly demand high-bandwidths to
the internet and ensures devices meet the provider’s
process, exploit, and disseminate information from a
standards, and the radio access network, composed of the
growing number of battlespace sensors. This could provide
cellular towers that broadcast and receive radio signals (see
commanders with timely access to actionable intelligence
. These analysts state that, while the risks posed
data, in turn improving operational decisionmaking.
by Chinese core networks are significant, the risks posed by
Similarly, 5G could reduce latency in other data-intensive
Chinese radio access networks could be managed. Other
activities, such as logistics and maintenance, and could
analysts have argued that having any Chinese equipment in
additionally enable augmented or virtual reality
the network could pose potential security concerns. Such
environments that could enhance training.
concerns have prompted some analysts to argue that the
United States should limit intelligence sharing with any
Finally, command and control systems could benefit from
country operating Chinese-supplied 5G equipment.
the high speed, low latency capability of 5G. For example,
the U.S. military currently uses satellite communications
Figure 2. Cellular Network Architecture
for most of its long-distance communications. However,
satellites on orbit can significantly increase latency due to
the amount of distance a signal needs to travel, causing
delays in the execution of military operations.
Although DOD is in the initial stages of testing and
experimentation for 5G applications, it has selected 12
military installations as test beds: Marine Corps Logistics
Base Albany, GA, and Naval Base San Diego, CA (“smart
warehouses”); Hill Air Force Base, UT (“spectrum sharing
between 5G and airborne radar”); Joint Base Lewis-
McChord, WA (“augmented and virtual reality”); Nellis Air
Force Base, NV (“survivable command and control and
In response to these national security concerns, Congress
network enhancement”); Naval Base Norfolk, VA (“ship-
passed the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020 (P.L. 116-
wide and pier connectivity”); Joint Base Pearl Harbor-
129), requiring the President to develop a strategy to protect
Hickam, HI (“enhancing aircraft mission readiness”); Joint
5G systems and infrastructure in the United States and
Base San Antonio, TX (“augmented reality support of
assist allies and partners in their own protection efforts. The
maintenance and training” and “evaluating DOD's 5G core
Administration released its 5G strategy in March 2020.
security experimentation network”); Tinker Air Force Base,
OK (“spectrum sharing between military communications
Similarly, in Section 254 of the FY2020 National Defense
and 5G”); and Camp Pendleton, CA; Ft. Hood, TX; and Ft.
Authorization Act (P.L. 116-92), Congress directed DOD to
Irwin National Training Center, CA (“connectivity for
develop a strategy to harness 5G “to enhance military
forward operating bases and tactical operations centers”).
capabilities, maintain a technological advantage on the
On September 18, 2020, DOD issued a request for
battlefield, and accelerate the deployment of new
information to better understand dynamic spectrum sharing
commercial products and services enabled by 5G networks
for 5G technologies. DOD requested $1.5 billion for 5G
throughout the Department of Defense.” DOD released an
and microelectronics in FY2021.
unclassified version of this strategy in May 2020.
Potential Questions for Congress
Implications for Military Operations
What approach to spectrum management (e.g., spectrum
5G technologies could have a number of potential military
sharing, spectrum reallocation) will best protect DOD
applications, particularly for autonomous vehicles, C2,
missions while meeting growing commercial demands?
logistics, maintenance, augmented and virtual reality, and
What are the risks to U.S. national security posed by
ISR systems—all of which would benefit from improved
Chinese 5G infrastructure in allied and partner nations?
data rates and lower latency (time delay).
Can that risk be managed and, if so, how?
Should the United States limit intelligence sharing with
Autonomous military vehicles, like their commercial
countries operating Chinese-supplied 5G equipment?
counterparts, could potentially circumvent on-board data
Are any changes to operational concepts, force structure,
processing limitations by storing large databases (e.g.,
doctrine, or posture required as a result of developments
maps) in the cloud. Safe vehicle operations would require
in or applications of military 5G?
5G’s high data rates and low latency to download off-board
John R. Hoehn
, Analyst in Military Capabilities and
information and synthesize it with on-board sensor data.
Likewise, 5G could be used to transfer sensor data between
operators and uninhabited vehicles and to network vehicles,
Kelley M. Sayler
, Analyst in Advanced Technology and
potentially enabling new military concepts of operations,
National Security Implications of Fifth Generation (5G) Mobile Technologies
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