WASHINGTON ― Top U.S. Air Force officials doubled down March 3 on the message that the Pentagon will not vacate airwaves that telecom firms want in their race with China to build the next-generation mobile networks, known as 5G.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett echoed Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying he’d be open to sharing mid-band spectrum, which is used by the the Aegis ship-defense system and Airborne Warning And Control System aircraft, among other major weapons systems.
“We have to operate in that spectrum. There may be some ways to parcel and share that spectrum, but we cannot leave it,” Goldfein said. “And there are some that are asking us to give that up, and that is not something I could ever advise you to do.”
In an exchange with Airland Subcommittee Chairman, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., Goldfein affirmed midband is important to AWACS and “where we’re going with battlefield networks.”
The service is developing its next-generation Advanced Battle Management System, which would give platforms the ability to simultaneously receive, fuse and act upon a massive collection of data from multiple domains instantaneously.
“The only sharing we can do is sharing where the fidelity of our signals is not intruded,” Barrett said.
As the Federal Communications Commission has initiated proceedings to free up spectrum, the White House has reportedly remained under pressure from telecommunications firms to free up access for mid-band spectrum, which they see as a commodity worth billions.
Washington has been warning other countries to be wary of Chinese investment and influence and lobbying them to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from involvement in the network because of cyberespionage concerns.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers and industry are pressing the Pentagon to balance its immediate operational needs against the economic and technological benefits expected to come with 5G’s improvements in data speed, volume and latency over fourth-generation networks.
Barrett told Cotton it was disappointing that some allies were opting not to exclude Huawei from their developing networks, but she acknowledged the United States has yet to offer “good alternatives.”
“We need to up our game to have as competitive a system, a more competitive system,” Barrett said. She added that if allies used the networks Huawei operates on, it would put American signals and airmen at risk.
The topic is expected to come up again March 4 as telecommunication executives testify about the transition to 5G before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. That panel’s chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We’re going to make sure DoD has what they need, and I think there’s some room there for a shared space, but we have not reached a conclusion,” Wicker said. “Members of Congress may reach different conclusions, but we’re listening, and we’ll be guided by the science.”
The Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. John Thune, chairs the Commerce Subcommittee on Science, and Transportation Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet. Speaking with reporters last week, Thune praised the FCC’s “aggressive” work to free up spectrum and said the Defense Department has been advised to free up some of its spectrum.
“We’ve been encouraging that for a long time, working with DoD, because they sit on a lot of the spectrum. The mid-band spectrum is really highly valued spectrum for 5G so we need to free up more of it,” Thune said.
By Thune’s reckoning, there are swaths of spectrum that can be shared and companies willing to do so, though some would prefer outright control.
“There’s always this back and forth with the Defense Department [over the last decade] to reallocate or share, but figure out ways free up more of that spectrum for commercial use,” Thune said. “So if they are willing to do that, that’s a very welcome development."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.