In a post-apocalyptic world devastated by hyper-technological comeuppance, control of 5G networks -- and whatever networks come after 5G -- will prove vital to recovery and national security, according to a recently issued US Air Force (USAF) report.
In November, the USAF's recently established Electromagnetic Defense Task Force (EDTF) released a report highlighting the significant national-security threat of disturbances to the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS).
These disturbances may be caused by natural geomagnetic disturbances (GMDs) such as periodic solar flares, or they may be caused by an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) as part of a military or terror attack. Either scenario, the EDTF notes, is already "realistic."
And either way, the effect is the same -- the disabling of electrical and electronic equipment not otherwise hardened against EMS disturbances, including equipment protected through Faraday cages or other electromagnetic filters. As the report illustrates, the worst-case scenario is similar to that of Y2K fears 20 years ago: interruptions to military operations, meltdowns of nuclear power plants, planes falling out of the sky, widespread blackouts and massive civil unrest -- with critical functions (technological and otherwise) potentially taking years to recover. The enormity of these risks is heightened by increased reliance by consumers, commercial enterprises, government agencies and military organizations on electronic devices and connectivity -- particularly with the advent of the Internet of Things.
"Today, all aspects of society, governance, and security have dependencies on EMS. However, power grids, telecommunications, and many command-and-control systems have not been designed to survive a hostile EMS environment," according to the report's authors. "Future reliability, standards, and management will all have to be coordinated in such a way as to prevent the linkages established by the IoT from continuing to give us a fragile and collapse-prone infrastructure."
5G is a top priority
The EDTF highlights seven top priorities for preparing for an EMS disruption. The first three are:
- Nuclear-power resilience ("In a worst-case scenario, all reactors within an affected region could be impacted simultaneously. In the United States, this would risk meltdowns at approximately 60 sites and 99 nuclear reactors.")
- Installation command posts and critical infrastructure ("Most installation response plans often omit EMP/GMD contingencies from sustainment or recovery planning and programs.")
- Exercise and training realism ("The challenges of establishing an ad hoc EMS response would be nearly difficult if not impossible to overcome.")
Next, the EDTF identifies the number four priority as that of addressing "competitor control of all digital information" -- specifically, through 5G dominance.
The report elaborates that open 5G technologies and access to 5G spectrum are crucial to not only democratic and economic interests but also communications and other war operations, such as may be in effect during an EMP-attack scenario, especially command and control. In effect, control of 5G is both control of the Internet and control of the future war landscape.
On these points, the EDTF heavily implies that the US's biggest threat in a post-EMP/GMD scenario is China. The report highlights China's heavy commitment -- to the tune of a $500-billion investment liability -- to rapidly deploying a global 5G network as a "Digital Silk Road" to "compete with Western interests" -- and that China is well on its way to realizing this goal. The report notes:
China's control over the majority of hardware manufacturing needed to create 5G components and antennas (41 percent of the market and rising) is part of Beijing's plan to deploy a network favorable to Chinese economic and security interests... It is probable that China will develop 5G as a dual use civil-military network and use the spin-off technologies to further expand its global sphere of influence.
Beyond 5G: The wireless-network cold war
The EDTF's report emphasizes the ticking clock that represents control of the 5G market and attendant technologies -- outlining various forecasts, including a warning that foreign actors could have 5G market share permanently "locked up" by 2021. For these reasons, the report urges government investment in new technologies to be deployed in outer space so that the US can "one day break society free of terrestrial networks."
Here, too, China has made substantial progress toward a space-based Internet using quantum computing, notes the EDTF. In 2016, Chinese physicists used a laser to split and then "entangle" quantum particles -- then launched one set of particle halves into space. They found that by affecting the rotation of a space-based sub-particle, the terrestrial twin sub-particle would often immediately reflect the polar-opposite state.
Taken to their logical conclusion, the goal of these experiments is "to create a secure and impenetrable space-based communications network that will transmit secure data instantaneously without risk of adversary's penetration." More to the point, such a quantum network would have resilience against EMS disruption; for instance, the EDTF predicts that the technology could even activate micro-embedded kill switches that have been taken offline and air gapped. (See: How Quantum Physics Will Protect Against Quantum-Busting Encryption.)
Consequently, both the methods and the stakes of cyberwarfare are due for escalation as 5G networks and their successors deploy.
"5G is a boundary-crossing secure communications advancement with nearly unlimited bandwidth and almost no latency," the report notes. "The states or nonstates that control the 5G network will dictate or control all digital transactions including the ability to share and receive information."
— Joe Stanganelli is managing director at research and consulting firm Blackwood King LC. In addition to being an attorney and consultant, he has spent several years analyzing and writing about business and technology trends. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.