WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is building a new office focused on acquiring 5G technology from commercial tech firms, a top official said today, a fresh admission from the military that it is struggling to keep up with the rapid-fire advances in communications technology industry.
Mike Griffin, undersecretary for research and engineering, said the Pentagon is “struggling to become the flea on the tail of the telecoms’ dog,” while acknowledging that tech “development won’t be led by DoD. We will be looking to be good customers” to commercial industry. The best the Pentagon can do is “enable” new technological development while picking spots where it can be a customer, he told an audience at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.
“We are aware that commercial initiatives in telecommunications far outstrip anything that we can do and would want to do at DoD.”
The Pentagon has submitted a plan to Congress outlining its proposed role in developing and using 5G, and a new assistant director position Griffin mentioned will work to ensure the department stays on top of the latest developments while developing policies for incorporating 5G into military networks.
One way the Pentagon might be able to assist the commercial sector is offering up its bases as testbeds for technological experiments, Griffin said. “If we can make available our infrastructure for experimenting and prototyping,” while assuring companies their proprietary information is protected, DoD can “provide venues where local, regional, and state permitting is not required for operating because they are operating on a DoD base, all of those things can really speed progress in 5G development.”
The stark admission that the Pentagon won’t develop some of the newest communications technologies and must instead be a customer is a necessary acknowledgement, as the government can’t simply compel the country’s brightest minds to work on federal projects, unlike the top-down system governing tech development in places like China.
But the risks are many.
The Department of Homeland Security recently warned government agencies against jumping into the 5G pool too quickly, saying, “5G hardware, software, and services provided by untrusted entities could increase the risk of compromise to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of network assets.”
Another recent report from the Aerospace Corporation, obtained by Breaking Defense, said the coming ubiquity of 5G networks that can quickly pull in feeds from multiple sensors and use emerging AI technologies will mean there may be “nowhere to hide” for sensitive information.
In his remarks, Griffin also expressed some frustration that the 2020 defense budget didn’t have enough money to begin the work of developing and building a layer of satellite-based sensors to meet emerging hypersonic threats, which he wants the Space Development Agency to deploy. But in what be a preview of the 2021 budget being developed in the bowels of the Pentagon, he said, “I think this year we’re going to be making a stronger try at getting funding for that space layer into the budget.”
Hypersonics present a new kind of threat, Griffin said, one that can’t be detected or defeated from any one domain.
“If this were exclusively a land conflict, one option would be to forward deploy radars, although they themselves then become targets,” Griffin said. “But as we look to the future, it’s a maritime conflict, and there are not enough islands and not enough ships to populate the world with radars. So you have to go to space.”
He said that a variety of satellites will need to be deployed in a lower orbit than sats that track intercontinental ballistic missiles in order to identify the low-flying hypersonic missiles more quickly.