STRATCOM wrapping spectrum ops center plan, as military faces bandwidth grab by 5G firms

USS Ramage (DDG 61).

USS Ramage (DDG 61), equipped with the Aegis Weapon System. (US Navy photo)

WASHINGTON — US Strategic Command expects approval soon of the action plan for its Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations Center (JEC), designed to identify gaps in and improve capabilities across the US military to fight through attacks on spectrum access, STRATCOM head Gen. Anthony Cotton said today.

“The overall objective of the JEC is to raise overall readiness of the joint force and to prevail in that mission space,” Cotton told the Senate Armed Services Committee today. “We’re actually doing really good work, and we’re in the final steps — actually working our way through with the Deputy Secretary of Defense [Kathleen Hicks] for her to sign out the memorandum and actions on the tasks that we have to move forward. So, I look forward to seeing that pretty soon.”

Cotton explained that electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) “superiority” is “critically important” for not just STRATCOM, but all of the combatant commands, underpinning “communication through all domains, and assured PNT, position, navigation and timing.”

Gen. Jim Dickinson, head of Space Command, echoed the criticality of EMS to modern warfare. He explained during the SASC hearing that all the space capabilities SPACECOM is responsible for providing to the joint force — from PNT to SATCOM to missile warning — are “dependent” upon access to EMS. Thus, he said, spectrum availability it “foundational to what US Space Command does.”

The JEC was launched at STRATCOM in August 2021, at the same time Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off on an implementation plan for the department’s 2020 Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy.

“My top priority is to execute the DoD EMS Superiority Strategy Implementation Plan,” Cotton told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on Wednesday, noting that the JEC will be commanded by a two-star and will report directly to him. And when it comes to JEC business, he added, his direct reporting line is to Hicks, who “can direct services to take action.”

DoD’s EMS Superiority Strategy and the JEC are focused on threats primarily from Russia and China, which have been building up their electronic warfare capabilities. But lawmakers responsible for Pentagon oversight on both sides of Capitol Hill also used the annual joint STRATCOM-SPACECOM posture hearings to raise concerns about another threat to DoD spectrum access closer to home — that is, commercial communications firms hungry for spectrum to launch 5G wireless phone and internet services.

Among those lawmakers expressing fears about the issue during this week’s hearings were Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., who chairs the HASC strategic forces subcommittee; Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., SASC chair; and Republican senators Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Tom Cotton of Arkansas.

Specifically, DoD for several years has been fighting a battle against major telecommunications firms, their congressional backers on the House and Senate commerce committees, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, which regulates commercial spectrum usage) to keep access to the 3.1-3.45GHz S-band, which currently is walled off for military use alone.

The House in July 2022 passed a bill, called the Spectrum Innovation Act, that would mandate the FCC to auction off the 3.1-3.45GHz band to interested 5G players, such as telecomm behemoths AT&T and Verizon. A modified version of the bill was subsequently passed by the Senate, but the two chambers couldn’t come to a compromise in time for language to be included in the 2023 federal appropriations bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in December. Supporters are now trying rally support for another go.

That band is primarily used by DoD ground-, air- and sea-based radars for detecting airborne and missile threats — in particular, by the Navy’s Aegis Combat System that is the heart of its ballistic defense capabilities. The Aegis’s AN/SPY radar further is one of the few US military systems able to track low flying, highly maneuverable hypersonic missiles.

DoD officials and military commanders assert that keeping some level of access to the band is therefore critical, and that there isn’t another spectrum band suitable for those systems. In addition, they argue, replacing current radar systems relying on the band would cost billions and take some two decades.

DoD Assistant Secretary for Space Policy John Plumb told the HASC subcommittee on Wednesday that replacing just the Aegis radar with one capable of using different frequencies would likely cost $120 billion.

“That particular portion of the band the S-band there, from 3.1-3.45, is absolutely essential for DoD operations,” Plumb stressed. “And I’ll just say we’ve looked at what it might take to vacate, by which mean leave that band and go somewhere else, and we don’t know where else we would go.”

Plumb explained that DoD and the Commerce Department are studying whether the military can share the contested spectrum band, rather than just giving it up for commercial 5G use. “For DoD, we need to be able to maintain our operational capability and readiness in any result,” he said.

Cotton and Dickinson told the SASC that at a minimum, no action should be taken by the FCC until that study — which is being spearheaded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which coordinates federal government use of spectrum — is completed. However, neither of those officials offered a prediction of when that might be.

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