5G is a weapon. With the mobile phone now the main source of communication, the Chinese Communist Party has targeted supplying 5G infrastructure to countries around the world, creating vulnerabilities to intelligence gathering and easy disruption of a country’s critical communications and other infrastructure.
America is behind in this wireless arms race, and to pull ahead the Department of Defense plays a critical role.
Over five years ago, the DoD recognized the military value of 5G with its ability to enable seamless communications and control of – and between – everything: devices, people, and machines. 5G moves large amounts of data quickly and securely, providing the basis for accurate, rapid actions and responses. The problem: existing 5G infrastructure equipment was geared for commercial networks and supplied by non-U.S. companies. In 2020, to spur innovation and ignite American 5G supply capabilities, Congress allocated $650 million to seed twelve 5G pilot projects at U.S. military bases.
From these test beds, two success stories stand out: the Marine Corps Logistics Base at Albany, Georgia, and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington State. At Albany, a pencil-and-clipboard process has been replaced by self-guided material movers and an automated inventory system running on 5G, increasing efficiency, inventory accuracy and freeing up military personnel for more critical tasks. At Whidbey, automated jet engine inspections and a new refueling process run on 5G, dramatically cutting down aircraft turnaround time.
Both Albany and Whidbey use dedicated, ‘private’ 5G networks — meaning the DoD owns and operates them independent of commercial cellular networks — built with American technology. This tech provides two key elements required by the DoD to ensure a secure and viable 5G supply chain: Open Radio Access Network, or O-RAN, architecture and a software-based solution. O-RAN allows for components from multiple vendors to operate together as one network, so the DoD is not locked to one supplier – critical for our national and economic security. The software solution provides the flexibility to scale from a command post to an entire base, which is also not possible with traditional cellular hardware.
In April 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the Department is committed to making the United States a world leader in 5G by working with the commercial sector and fielding 5G to the warfighter.”
In the December 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress moved past its reputation for sharp partisanship, and on a bipartisan basis advanced a major new policy that mandates that all DoD bases and facilities deploy a 5G O-RAN private wireless network customized to the specific bases’ needs.
All the pieces are in place – proven American 5G technology, commitment from the DoD to make the U.S. a world leader in 5G, and Congressional policy mandating private 5G networks at all military bases. The path is clear for America to pull ahead in the 5G arms race with the CCP: the DoD is taking the lead in developing American 5G capability and capacity, as it must. From there our superior technology can be used to win in the global market.
The next step is the most critical: The U.S. military must develop the requirements at each base so that Congress can fully fund this initiative and accelerate its rollout.
Joe “Digger” DiGuardo, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, is the principal for DiggerWorks Consulting LLC and the senior director of government strategy at Ocean Power Technologies.