- The spread of 5G mobile communications technology is creating new problems for the US military.
- Compromised networks could give adversaries an opportunity to monitor and attack US personnel.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In an increasingly interconnected world, the US military is facing new challenges in old stomping grounds.
Even though the US isn’t at war with China, competition with Beijing is already raging, and conventional and special-operations troops deployed around the world are exposed, either directly or through proxies, to Chinese technology that could hinder them in a conflict.
The worst offender is 5G, the same mobile communications technology ordinary people use or will be using in the future.
5G is the latest generation of mobile communications network technology.
Every 10 years or so, a new generation of mobile communications goes live. 1G, the first generation, arrived with the first cellphones. 2G brought better coverage and texting. 3G introduced data and online services, while 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) brought increased network capacity and improved speeds to address the high demand for mobile data.
5G has download speeds 100 times faster than 4G, meaning that a 3-gigabyte movie would take 35 seconds to download instead of 40 minutes. 5G also has one-tenth the latency as its predecessor, with data response times as fast as a millisecond.
5G promises a transformation of telecommunication networks in a way that makes new capabilities — such as remote surgery, smart cities, and autonomous vehicles — more widely available.
China and 5G
The development of 5G technology is an international affair, with several companies working on their own versions, primarily for domestic consumers.
However, Chinese firm Huawei — which is suspected of stealing its 5G technology from a Canadian firm through cyberattacks — has been deploying its 5G technology worldwide.
Given China’s peculiar national security laws, which require individuals and companies to cooperate with the Chinese security services, any Huawei technology around the world is a potential threat to privacy and national security. Through Huawei, Beijing could spy on or disrupt infrastructure and operations during peace or war.
Governments have realized the danger and have been banning Huawei from their networks. The British government did so in 2020, and the US Federal Communications Commission designated Huawei a national security threat in 2021, following several Chinese cyberattacks.
Despite these privacy and security concerns, some countries — especially those in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America — are turning to China for 5G technology. What makes Huawei appealing to these countries is its low cost.
“China seeks to supplant global telecommunications competition by providing low-cost infrastructure throughout the developing world. In short, China continues to use the tactic of ‘debt diplomacy’ as a means of controlling commerce in places like Africa and Southeast Asia, as well as penetrating European and South American markets with 5G technologies,” Herm Hasken, a partner and senior operations consultant at MarkPoint Technologies, told Insider.
In exchange for hefty loans and infrastructure like railroads, ports, and telecom networks, Beijing gains access to natural resources, such as oil and minerals. In some cases, China has been able to claim rights to those infrastructure projects when the host country defaults on its loans.
The proliferation of 5G technology also poses threats to the US itself.
The National Security Agency and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency recently released an advisory that identified five areas of vulnerability associated with the introduction of 5G that state and non-state actors could exploit:
- Attempts by malicious state and non-state actors to influence the design and architecture of 5G networks
- A potentially vulnerable 5G supply chain
- 5G working with old, potentially compromised infrastructure
- Limited competition in the 5G market
- New, previously unknown vulnerabilities introduced with 5G
Special operations and 5G
Special-operations and conventional forces will have to deal with 5G threats when deployed for combat missions or other operations, such as general reconnaissance.
“Special Operations Forces and its partner forces will be increasingly facing foreign technology-based threats while globally deployed. This is especially the case where Chinese- and Russian-manufactured and controlled telecommunications infrastructure is installed,” said Hasken, who has extensive special-operations and intelligence-community experience.
For example, when an Army Special Forces team or a Navy SEAL platoon deploys overseas for combat operations or to work with partner forces, they have an electronic and online signature.
Compromised local networks could be used to collect information about their mission and identities, and their tactics, techniques, and procedures.
The head of US Southern Command, who is responsible for US military activity around South America, has specifically cited the presence of Chinese IT infrastructure as a risk to exchanges with partner countries.
Special-operations forces “must consider they are operating under a constant state of surveillance while deployed overseas,” added Hasken, who spent time at the National Security Agency as the US Special Operations Command’s chief cryptologist.
SOCOM’s Hyper Enabled Operator initiative is designed to address those threats and “give SOF, Cyber, and conventional forces situational awareness tools that will enable secure communications and force protection techniques required in contested and congested information environments,” Hasken said.
The spread of 5G technology also brings opportunities for special-operations forces, especially when it comes to access and information — both essential to shaping the battlespace.
“The location, type, services provided via 5G may help inform SOF operators, Civil Affairs teams, PSYOPS, electronic warfare and communications support teams on critical nodes required to operate with host nation elements while denying such services to internal security or hostile elements attempting to deny, degrade, or totally disrupt US military operations overseas,” Hasken added.
5G promises to revolutionize how we work and communicate, but it poses security risks that, if not addressed, could have dire consequences for the public at home and troops in the field.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.