Pentagon Gets Real About Spectrum…at Last

The Pentagon is signaling a new and greater awareness of its role in the spectrum policy problem. This comes in an article in C4ISRNET (C4 is a military acronym for Command, Control, Communications, and Computers) by Maj. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Network Cross-Functional Team at Army Futures Command.

The article, Hiding in plain sight: Warfare in the electromagnetic spectrum admits that warfare has entered a new era of electronic devices such as drones that rely on spectrum for guidance and control. The defense against drones is simple: the adversary merely has to find the controlling radio signal and jam it.

The solution to the problem is to prevent the adversary from finding the signal. This is best accomplished by making the signal look like all of the other stuff that happens in spectrum, such as cell phones, Wi-Fi, GPS, and data satellites.

Hiding in Plain Sight

As the general explains the insight, it’s a takeaway from Putin’s war on Ukraine:

Because the Department of Defense will never have protected access to the EMS, U.S. adversaries such as Russia, China, and Iran have the capability to detect, restrict, or deny the EMS at the time and place of their choosing. Russia’s current use of advanced electronic surveillance to detect, locate, and target Ukraine positions is a clear reminder that detection equals horrific destruction. We must address the U.S.’s ability to hide in plain sight on the battlefield by reducing electromagnetic signature, improving training, and sensing and understanding electronic signals.

It’s hard to overstate what a radical departure this insight is from traditional Pentagon spectrum policy. As long as I’ve been involved in spectrum policy – since 1990 – the Pentagon has insisted that it must have primary rights to spectrum in the US.

This attitude has been clearly evident since the Obama era PCAST report that led to CBRS. PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) argued that government agencies, such as DoD, should share rather relinquish spectrum rights: “the traditional practice of clearing government-held spectrum of Federal users and auctioning it for commercial use is not sustainable.” And it showed up in the infamous Spalding plan to put all spectrum under DoD control.

Unfair Sharing

PCAST didn’t mean equitable sharing, it meant that agencies could dictate terms and conditions under which commercial operators could be second-class citizens as is the case with CBRS. We explained the shortcomings of CBRS in our responses to inquiries from DoD and NTIA earlier this year. CBRS shares spectrum between Naval radar, licensed operators, and unlicensed.

This means that license holders have to clam up when the military is operating, which makes it impossible for license holders to rely on CBRS spectrum for 24×7 usage. As we said to NTIA:

CBRS denies service to civilian users in order to enable military systems to operate in a clean spectrum environment. On its face, this is a dicey proposition that can only be welcomed when spectrum rights are scarce and demand is extremely high. ITS should seek to discover the frustration level of civilian users and operators with this unconventional approach. If frustration is high, alternative approaches are available.

As Gen. Rey tells us, providing military systems with pristine spectrum at home, during training conditions, can only lead to bad results on the battlefield. Former NTIA Administrator Larry Irving likes to quote a military adage “you fight as you train.”

Despite the adage’s relevance to sports, nothing could be further from the truth in today’s military. Successfully getting through training on crutches is very poor preparation for battle.

Rey’s Insight Isn’t New

While it’s unusual for the Pentagon to speak frankly, the insight has been expressed before. Dr. Lisa Porter, former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, told us during our podcast that the military must always be able to “operate through” in battlefield conditions.

5G - Key Themes for DoD

Slide from Dr. Porter’s Presentation

Indeed, ubiquitous connectivity is the key to success in modern warfare. We stressed this in our comments to the DoD “Request for Information to support the development of a Next-Generation Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) Strategic Roadmap”:

Hence, operating through in adversary states will require substantial technical innovation that takes installed communication infrastructure as it is. Guiding US technology along a path that foreswears interference or relocation of incumbent users (such as DoD) will not bring DoD closer to its ultimate goals.

Hence, the framing of the RFI interferes with DoD’s ability to gather the kind of information it needs to plot a roadmap for spectrum use in the ten to twenty year planning horizon upon which the Department operates.

While we will do the best we can to answer the RFI’s questions as written, we suggest that a further RFI is needed, one that focuses exclusively on the hostile theater and “hostile actor in a friendly theater” scenarios.

Rey’s op-ed suggests that the Pentagon is taking the issue to heart.

Is the Spectrum Policy Community On Board?

It’s not clear that US spectrum policy interests are committed to working with the Pentagon to update their systems to stealthy operation. Apart from TPRC, where spectrum is serious business, policy conferences don’t emphasize the issue at all, generally preferring to dwell on more parochial concerns of incumbents and fringe issues outside the expertise of their audiences.

Cable companies want more unlicensed spectrum ostensibly for Wi-Fi. But their motives are suspect, probably having more to do with taking spectrum away from the 5G and 6G residential broadband offerings that compete with cable’s bread and butter market.

CBRS and the PCAST operatives who championed its grandfather plan is still regarded and respectable and even visionary, especially by the PCAST people themselves. Champions of ersatz sharing – most in the Eric Schmidt and Stanford economics orbit – have yet to follow Gen. Rey’s lead. They should be encouraged to do so.

Build and Follow the Path

DoD and its enablers in government, policy, and academe need to get on the same page. Instead of promoting dysfunctional sharing regimes, the enablers need to support DoD’s desire to learn how to operate better in hostile environments. Gen. Rey says this begins with training and technology development:

While the U.S. military, including Army Futures Command and our teammates, recognizes the urgency of this challenge and is moving forward, more is needed to counter an adversary who is determined to win. China, Russia, Iran and others have observed more than 20 years of a counterterrorism war and they have invested in equipment, training, and people to try to deter or defeat the U.S. military. It is imperative that the DoD intensify its efforts to reduce electromagnetic signature, improve training, and develop tools to sense and understand the environment. We must prepare for the day the U.S. is denied access to the EMS.

Sharing by denial of service and allocating spectrum in the interest of anti-competitive industries doesn’t make the US more safe and secure. But improving technology, revising policy to promote innovation, and setting high but realistic goals does. The brightest lights in DoD have illuminated the path to success. Reducing DoD’s appetite for dedicated spectrum is step one.