Military-Grade 5G and the Specter of Security

2021-04-29  |  5 min read 

For defense and government applications, fifth-generation (5G) cellular promises a range of improved or new capabilities. By improving communications performance and capacity, it can boost communications for military personnel. It also can enhance intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Beyond such examples of boosted communications performance, however, it also offers the potential for new applications and use cases. In an expert virtual roundtable, we brought together a panel of experts to discuss the potential of 5G – specifically, for the U.S. government and military. Among the topics that emerged most critical was the issue of 5G and security.

The panel featured the following individuals:

  • Robert Wheeler, Major General, U.S. Air Force (Retired) and CEO at Strategic Consulting Unlimited
  • Rob Spalding, Brigadier General, U.S. Air Force (Retired) and CEO of SEMPRE
  • Charles Clancy, Senior Vice President and Chief Futurist at the MITRE Corporation
  • Ashutosh Dutta, IEEE Fellow and Senior Scientist and 5G Chief Strategist, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
  • Vincent Nguyen, General Manager, Aerospace Defense Government Solutions, Keysight Technologies
  • Raymond Shen, Director, Keysight’s 5G and Spectrum Government Solutions

All of the members agreed that 5G presents significant security challenges for the aerospace and defense industry. Charles Clancy notes that 5G sets out to fix the long-standing security issues present in 2G, 3G, and 4G. Yet it also represents a dramatic change in the underlying architecture. A cloud native architecture has not previously been deployed on this scale in the telecommunications environment. In addition, because 5G phones will have backwards compatibility to the previous standards, they may still be vulnerable to 2G, 3G, and 4G attacks.

Robert Wheeler cautions, “If you start to think about the 5G use cases coming down the pipe, very quickly, you start to realize that it’s a changing world in that aspect. It’s literally going to be a wireless bubble across the whole nation, where nearly every single thing we do will be done wirelessly.” Wheeler points to examples ranging from power grids to autonomous vehicles, underscoring the need for standards around security to protect and safeguard these evolving systems.

Beyond vulnerability in aerospace defense applications, Rob Spalding points to the problem with adapting a consumer-grade technology for military use. The platform itself can become an avenue of attack, which is leveraged to exploit and undermine a society.

Rob Spalding also points to the fact that the U.S. innovation cycle has probably not developed as quickly as needed. While development moves rapidly ahead, starting off behind requires an eventual leapfrog beyond leading technologies to guarantee success. In “National Security Implications of Fifth Generation (5G) Mobile Technologies,” the Congressional Research Service notes, “According to a DIB assessment, China is the current leader in sub-6 technologies and is likely to deploy the world’s first 5G wide-area network. Chinese companies, which often receive government subsidies (e.g., subsidized land for facilities, R&D grants), are therefore well-positioned as global 5G suppliers.”

A positive point is that the 5G ecosystem has a lot of enablers, Ashutosh Dutta notes, ranging from Cloud RAN to network slicing, virtualization, orchestration, and automation to supply chain security. He advices studying those various pillars and the additional security risks they invite. By doing so, we can recognize the opportunities provided in terms of security.

Many aspects of 5G security need to be confronted for military and government adoption. Theoretically, many may be solved, yet new issues always arise in deployment and configuration of a secure network. As deployment speeds up, government and private industry will have to team on experiments to find and fix any security gaps. As Wheeler notes, “That security aspect is probably the most critical piece besides having some help from the government to make sure we can move forward faster on 5G.”

Find out what else our esteemed experts had to say on security and other topics. You can check out the discussion here.