The societal implications of 5G — on how we live and how we work — are truly mind-boggling. And so is the capacity to abuse that power.
Let’s be totally clear: anything connected to an unsecured 5G network will be a potential weapon that can be used to gain geopolitical influence and control. If China were to control a 5G network, it would be able to weaponize the technology within entire cities — or entire countries — served by that network and hold that city or state at its mercy.
When I joined the National Security Council in May 2017, I had two goals in mind: educate the other members of the NSC on China’s not-so-covert campaign for global dominance, and ensure the security of the 5G network not only within US borders but for our allies as well. Given decades of Chinese digital infiltration and IP theft, there was little doubt that the Chinese Communist party (CCP) would put a premium on controlling 5G networks. China’s biggest telecom companies, Huawei and ZTE, began aggressively offering to build 5G networks for other nations. And that set off alarm bells in my head.
If a Chinese telecom builds and controls a nation’s 5G network, there will be no checks and balances to keep the Chinese company from stealing and mining all the data on that network: all the academic papers and research, all engineering and business plans, all the photos, emails and text messages. Everything will be fair game to a country that doesn’t believe in fair games.
Furthermore, controlling another nation’s network will allow the CCP to weaponize the technology that is managed by the network. What does that mean? Think of a hostile force taking over a self-driving car or bus and directing it to crash into a crowded sidewalk. Think of a flock of drones moving into the flight path of an airplane. Think of every digitally controlled furnace shutting down during a subzero cold spell.
The blend of technologies and spectrums behind 5G will allow for about three million connected devices per square mile. This is an exponential upgrade from 4G, which enables about 10,00 connections per square mile. That means that in a stadium hosting an NFL football game, every smartphone-owning fan in attendance will have a network connection, but so will any drones, sensors, or robots in or near the stadium — including the cars in the parking lot.
The capacity for communication offered by 5G is stunning. It is much better to think of 5G as a network built for machines, since most of the network traffic will eventually be machine to machine. This will allow for massive data production, which will feed machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms, which in turn will continue improving the technology in a giant information feed-back loop.
The NSC is run by the national security adviser, who has an office in the West Wing of the White House. Most of his staff, the council, operates out of the old Executive Office, now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, just west of the White House. The council, as you’d imagine, is filled with experts. Some are Middle East experts. Some are Russia experts. Some are Europe experts. Some are nuclear weapons experts. Naturally, every expert thinks his area of focus is of paramount importance, myself included. But if the NSC is concerned with clear and present danger — which is part of its mandate — I knew to my core that the biggest threat to national security wasn’t Isis, al-Qaeda, and radical Islam or Vladimir Putin. It was and is China. And nothing would be more damaging than the CCP’s potential global dominance of 5G networks.
I intended to make this clear to the entire NSC. Unfortunately, because of internal politics, I didn’t have the clout to push my understanding of China’s strategy to the forefront of the NSC. So I crafted a way to build awareness of China’s threat to security indirectly. I organized a series of open forums I called ‘Winning without War’ and invited the entire NSC to attend. I booked speakers to discuss economic warfare, political warfare, information warfare, and legal warfare — different ways that you can defeat an opponent without actually firing a shot. The forums each consisted of a 45-minute presentation, a 20-minute Q and A, and then a 45-minute free-for-all discussion.
For the first meeting, I asked James Mulvenon, a long- time China hand and co-author of 2013’s Chinese Industrial Espionage, to talk. The effect was electric: total engagement. Many of the Trump administration who were interested in China policy were there. By the end of the meeting, things got really heated. At one point, a China watcher basically called a military policy expert a panda-hugger, and all hell broke loose. This was not business as usual at the NSC.
To keep the peace, I got up and gave the last word. I thanked everyone for attending and said I had two observations:
‘The first thing that we need to do is realize that the enemy is not in this room; it’s six thousand miles away. And the second thing is that the truth is, we’ve all been alcoholics, essentially getting drunk on China. What are we going to do about it?’
The talks were well attended and extremely influential. I believe they led to an invitation to contribute to the 2018 National Security Strategy and help lay out our China policy and our 5G policy. I began drafting a memo about the future of 5G in the United States. In it, I stated that the creation of the network was a national security issue — as opposed to a business or technology issue. The paper asserted that protecting the security of our 5G network was critical to stopping Chinese influence and hostile actions. And because that was critical to maintaining our levels of security and freedom, the effort should be led by the US government.
The document outlined a plan to transition to a wholesale model for wireless communications. The idea was that the United States would share the military spectrum with a private company that would construct and maintain a secure 5G network and then lease out bandwidth to retail providers. By providing a secure option in which communications would be encrypted and protected, and allowing telecoms to procure and provide access to the network, we would ensure the integrity of our information and communications infrastructure and begin to break China’s telecommunications market dominance.
In my proposal, I compared a government build-out of 5G to Eisenhower’s national highway plan, a giant infrastructure plan that sought to ensure the swift movement of military troops, hardware, and ancillary support through the country. Yes, it opened up the nation and jump-started the long-distance trucking industry, but the multibillion-dollar highway project was rooted in infrastructure and security. The 5G platform is no different. It is about building a highway, too — an information highway.
Although my analogy was rooted in history, the proposal was greeted as a radical idea in many quarters. Telecommunications in America has been owned and operated by the private sector for more than one hundred years. The multibillion-dollar industry regarded the idea of government involvement — other than the breakup of AT&T’s monopoly in the 1970s — as antithetical to free trade and therefore inconceivable.
The idea that the government would be overstepping its bounds, however, flies in the face of precedent and reality. The government of the United States controls or regulates many markets of national importance. Airlines are subject to the rules and requirements of the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees the skies of America. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses and inspects reactors. The Food and Drug Administration dictates which drugs can and can’t be sold. The federal government even controls the price of milk! Airlines, nuclear power, drugs, and food — those are four vital industries with government regulation that I was able to name off the top of my head. I’m sure there are plenty of others.
So the argument that the government would be over-regulating by managing or ‘overseeing’ 5G to ensure national security and safety is entirely disingenuous. That’s precisely what a government should do. And I say that as someone with libertarian leanings.
My proposal was leaked to the press. I have no idea who was behind the disclosure, but it set off a firestorm of criticism. Sources have told me that representatives of a large American telecom put pressure on the administration to get rid of me.
Apparently, those sources were correct. That same week, I received word that my ‘detail was ended’. That was the system’s way of saying I was being removed — in effect, fired — from my position at the NSC.
My bid to awaken the NSC and to ensure that America can operate safely and securely in the future was over. On one level, I was OK with leaving the NSC. I had succeeded in getting a 5G declaration placed in the 2018 National Security Strategy document signed by President Trump: ‘We will improve America’s digital infrastructure by deploying a secure 5G internet capability nationwide.’
I also felt that I had succeeded in awakening the NSC to China’s stealth war. My goal was to get people to understand the problem, because that is the first step toward formulating good policy.
But on another level, nobody likes being forced out of a job. That was frustrating. The scariest, most disheartening thing of all, however, was the thought — the reality, actually — that after more than 20 years serving my country, I was bounced, in part, so that corporations could sacrifice long-term national security for quick and easy short-term profits.
This has become the American way. It has to change. Now.
This is an edited excerpt from brigadier general Robert Spalding’s Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio).