WASHINGTON — With Europe in the early stages of developing their 5G networks, the Pentagon’s top general in the region issued a stark warning March 5: Allies need to keep China out or risk losing the ability to integrate with America’s military.

Testifying at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the head of U.S. European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, said that the department has to know there is a “secure 5G capability” in Europe, requiring the NATO allies to be “very careful about Chinese investment” in such networks.

“We also want to know that we’re secure with our allies that we connect with. And there may be an outcome [where] we can’t connect with our allies unless they change the composition of their systems. We’re trying to get ahead of that,” he said.

Speaking to Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Scaparrotti stressed that 5G is not just an upgrade on existing 4G networks that will go a little faster, but rather a “whole new world” that will be vital to future war-fighting capabilities.

The development of 5G networks has become something of a proxy war between the United States and China over the last several months. Chinese firms, such as Huawei, have been competing for contracts throughout Europe to set up a 5G capability, while the United States has encouraged nations to look elsewhere because of security concerns.

While not the only area where Chinese investments in Europe concern the Pentagon, the 5G issue has risen to the forefront. Earlier this month, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan issued a statement: “Secure and resilient 5G telecommunications is vital to the security and prosperity of the United States, and DoD is working closely with our industrial and research partners to develop comprehensive and innovative solutions for both the Department and commercial industries.

“The United States and our allies and partners must demand nothing less than robust, trusted, and secure next-generation communications systems,” Shanahan said.

The good news? The EUCOM head sees a growing awareness across the alliance on the issue.

“This is an open discussion. I would say to you that, just to give you an idea of how this has come along, two years ago this wouldn’t have been a topic,” Scaparrotti said. “A year ago it was starting to come in. And now it’s front and center and we’re beginning to have the right conversations as a security issue.”

New task force

5G is increasingly becoming a focus for the national security think tank community as well. On March 6, the Ronald Reagan Institute’s Center for Peace Through Strength announced the creation of the task force on 21st century national security technology and workforce. In a conference call with reporters, leaders there said 5G is likely to be among the technologies the committee will focus on explaining in the national security context before filing a formal report this fall.

Roger Zakheim, the director of the Reagan Institute, said defense leaders are gravitating toward new technologies but that the U.S. military risks losing its advantage.

“There’s a growing sense that if we don’t get this right, you’ll never get that shot off because someone will have unplugged you,” he said.

The task force will be led by Bob Work, the former deputy secretary of defense, and Jim Talent, the former senator from Missouri.

Mike Gruss of C4ISRNET contributed to this report.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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