December 5, 2020

5G War: Rigging the Game

5 min read
DoD funding, chiplets, Nellis Air Force Base and Huawei. What’s the common thread here? It’s...

DoD funding, chiplets, Nellis Air Force Base and Huawei. What’s the common thread here? It’s about the unfolding 5G war, and the game is already rigged.


Recently, I have been looking at the emergence of Department of Defense’ funding programs that were directed at advanced packaging for heterogeneous integration. As Intel was a major recipient, the idea of using Intel digital processing power makes sense, especially when it’s coupled with their packaging innovations to integrate peripheral chiplets for unexamined functions.

If we consider one of the hottest technology trends, 5G connectivity is a logical add-on to the back-end processing when offered by the advanced system-in-package concept. What about the military? There are certainly opportunities to leverage both technologies. Alas intelligent sensors on 5G meshes needs more thought than a Friday afternoon can afford.

All the news about 5G has not been completely positive. For example, the US Navy joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA in a warning to the FCC that the planned rollout would interfere with weather satellite operation. Perhaps the armed forces had concerns about a civilian 5G rollout, but they are not being left behind.

Two applications that the DoD appears outwardly interested in are logistics and AR/VR applications.

Logistics are central to military operations whether in conflict or peacetime, but they don’t seem as war-minded as some of the other functions described recently. Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada) received funding for a 5G dual-use military and commercial network infrastructure. Nellis is the only base specifically tasked with finding “war-fighting use cases for 5G.” There was recognition that legacy command and control architectures could be vulnerable to “advanced adversaries.”

Nellis Air Force Base Promotes their 5G (source: Nellis AFB)

Current US military command and control is not as mobile as it could be. As Nellis PR points out, “The first objective is to utilize the increased bandwidth of the 5G network to disaggregate and mobilize existing Command and Control (C2) architectures in an agile combat employment scenario.”

Furthermore, 5G represents a coming push into an IoT for the military with dense connectivity between battlefield nodes and sensors. The statement out of Nellis ends with a boast that they are the “Air Force’s preeminent leaders in transitioning technological advancements to fielded capabilities that enable joint and allied war-fighters to compete, deter, and ultimately win in any high-end fight.”

That’s sounding a bit more aggressive than tracking inventory. I can’t help but think a lot of this will ultimately be about drones of one sort or another. Rather than dig into the specific use cases, it’s time to look at the upstream connections.

I think it is safe to assume that hardware AT&T is installing for Nellis Air Force Base will not be procured from Huawei. It’s hard to think of 5G without mentioning Huawei.

Through executive order, the Trump administration infamously blocked Huawei from selling its gear into the U.S. 5G rollout. Allies have also been requested (insert any more forceful synonym like “bullied” that you like) to follow the U.S. lead to keep Huawei out of the latest network infrastructure due to security concerns. Although more of us simple folk here in Canada may know Huawei as the main sponsor for Hockey Night in Canada rather than the most powerful 5G network infrastructure provider that may or may not embed backdoors for the People’s Liberation Army, we are also tied into the political drama since we currently have Huawei’s CFO detained. Meng Wanzhou (and daughter of the founder / CEO) is in the middle of a challenge to prevent her pending extradition to the United States for allegedly breaching the Iran sanctions. Despite this bit of intrigue, little old Canada has not yet agreed to block Huawei from supplying network gear although the other Five Eyes intelligence sharing allies have.

Stopping network equipment sales could be moot if Huawei cannot procure from the U.S. chip vendors. In the second half of a one-two, the US Commerce Department moved to block sales of semiconductor content made with US technology earlier this year. With China’s IC and foundry technology still in early stages of development, this is a key strategy to keeping the US ahead of China in technology. But as recognized earlier, new technology and the military are not that far removed.

Making a connection between technology and national security is certainly not new, and it is doubtful that the U.S. administration would feel the need to rationalize one front in the trade war with China by connecting 5G to a military need. But as the various branches begin to adopt 5G systems and these are furthermore either dual commercial / military or based on standard commercial technology, one could easily see the sensitivity arguments against using equipment from a non-ally country.

Competition between China and the United States has been brewing on many fronts. It has been building over the last four years now topped by 2020 that brought both the pandemic and the Commerce Department move to keep US semiconductor technology out of China.

Trade or Cold War?
While the seeds of a pandemic were in the wind, the U.S. Attorney General Barr launched his own attack on China in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in early February. Bill Barr asserted that a viable competitor for Huawei did not yet exist. The basic premise was that the strength of a true competitor required the large domestic market that companies like Nokia or Ericsson just do not have. This is where our discussion turns back to government investment into advanced technology. The goal of a significant domestic market for a new Hauwei competitor, AG Barr suggested, “…could be met by the United States aligning itself with Nokia and/or Ericsson through American ownership of a controlling stake, either directly or through a consortium of private American and allied companies.”

Despite the dominance and name brand of the company in many other spaces, Samsung is a less well-known name in the 5G space. That appears to be changing. Interestingly, Samsung does have the benefit of a significant captive domestic market, and they have taken full advantage of it. Oddly, Bill Barr didn’t think of Samsung, but they are quietly filling voids left by Huawei.

Where will a Friday ramble end? I will try to avoid a pessimistic tone but make no guarantee of success.

A recent EE Times headline was eye-catching: CHIPS Act Targets Post-Globalized Industry. In that piece, my two favorite tech writers interviewed Dan Hutcheson, the CEO of VLSI Research. The interviewers were following up a comment from Hutcheson from the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) webinar in which Dan postulated, “We live in the post-globalization era.” The analysis continued on with “all countries are beginning to wall themselves off,” and re-focus onto national security concerns.

EE Times’ interview with Dan Hutcheson starts at 13:30

Technology cold wars and their national security rationalizations are simply the latest symptoms of the larger trend of nationalism in the world. And here comes my “tried but failed moment.”

Through the Covid-19 pandemic, we are currently living through a time-wrinkled parallel to the early twentieth century. Nationalism grew rapidly in the early twentieth century. Hopefully, the outcome is brighter than 1914 through 1918. We’ve already had the pandemic. Let’s avoid the conflict.

The post 5G War: Rigging the Game appeared first on EETimes.

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