The Pentagon Has a Defenseless Approach to 5G

America’s enemies will laugh with anticipated victory when they read of Pentagon recommendations for 5G

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for the Economics of the Internet
An intelligent robot copies the movement of a visitor wearing sensor suit at the 5G stand during "Expo 2019 Beijing" on April 29, 2019. (VCG/Getty Images)
An intelligent robot copies the movement of a visitor wearing sensor suit at the 5G stand during "Expo 2019 Beijing" on April 29, 2019. (VCG/Getty Images)

Government officials in both parties fret about the technological competition between the United States and China over the next generation of wireless services known as “5G” for fifth generation. The official word is that America is winning. The unofficial reality is that we are not. Huawei has a large and growing share of the wireless network market.

To see the failure of our government’s approach to this new technology, consider a recent landmark report from the Department of Defense Innovation Board (DIB). This body of industry experts should have provided market-based guidance on how to support the Pentagon’s military needs for 5G with innovative solutions. Instead, the DIB has come down in favor of substantially lessened property rights.

The race between the United States and China for 5G is as much about the supremacy of clashing economic policies. Centralized planning, government subsidies, weak-to-non-existent property rights particularly for intellectual property, a shameful record on human rights, and a cozy relationship between its government and national businesses have propelled China to the global leader in 5G. At its best, America has none of these characteristics, and new businesses and technologies have flourished.

Consider the DIB's first recommendation: __DoD needs to make a plan for sharing … spectrum to shape the future 5G ecosystem, including an assessment of how much and which bandwidths need to be shared, within what timeframe, and how that sharing will impact DoD systems.__

Sharing is not a recognized military strategy. Military doctrine does not rely on sharing personnel, equipment, and ammunition with others, much less with potential enemies. Of course, we share intelligence with the “Five Eyes” and other military allies, but we typically do not share DoD spectrum even with them.

Better than sharing would be more explicit property rights for DoD spectrum. With such property rights, DoD could exclude others, particularly enemies, from using spectrum that it considers vital while allowing DoD to lease or sell excess spectrum. In contrast, sharing muddies property rights, allowing practically anyone, friend or foe, to use the spectrum.

No doubt, governments hostile to the United States are proponents of DoD sharing its spectrum. The DIB asks how sharing would “impact DoD systems.” The answer is obvious: not well.

The Pentagon might reasonably seek advice on how to counter the commercial influence of companies in countries potentially hostile to the United States. Huawei and fellow Chinese company ZTE in come to mind. Instead, the second recommendation of the DIB report waves a white flag: __DoD must prepare to operate in a “post-Western” wireless ecosystem. This plan should include R&D investments towards system security and resiliency on an engineering and strategic level.__

The term “post-Western wireless ecosystem” is both offensive and inaccurate. Worse than the word choice is the underlying meaning: America has lost the battle for secure networks. Implicitly, our enemies have the capability at will to steal information and to sabotage our networks.

Rather than investing in more R&D for resiliency, we should be clarifying the economic property rights both in information and in the carriage of information. For decades, America has invested in the development of new technologies only to see much of that intellectual property compromised and stolen. The proper response to theft is not to surrender; instead, it is to strengthen the enforcement of property rights.

The third recommendation of the DIB report is: __DoD should advocate for adjusted trade policies to discourage vulnerabilities in its supply chain on the grounds that they put national security assets and missions at risk.__

Deprived of military capability, DoD is reduced to the role of "advocate," not even an advocate for military programs but trade policy.

America’s enemies will laugh with anticipated victory when they read of Pentagon recommendations for 5G: sharing and operating in a “post-Western” environment.

Our enemies should instead cower with certain defeat when they read of America’s commitment to the triumph of property rights and markets, the tried and true concepts that have given America economic growth, and with it, technological supremacy.

Read in RealClearDefense.