Hill AFB 5G

An engineering facility at Hill Air Force Base is pictured Nov. 20, 2019. The facility is used for testing and training and is a replica of the long-range radar systems that make up the American-Canadian North Warning System.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — While a multimillion-dollar 5G technology program kicks off at Hill Air Force Base, the Government Accountability Office says the plan still needs some work.

Last week, the Department of Defense announced the beginning of a $600 million plan to perform testing and evaluation of 5G technologies at five military installations across the United States, including at Hill, where efforts will be focused on building and operating a localized, full-scale 5G mobile cellular network. The network will be located near the base so the department can evaluate the impact of such infrastructure on airborne radar systems and, conversely, the radar systems’ impact on the 5G network.

Hill has one of the Air Force’s most active aircraft operations. Since late 2015, the base has operated the Air Force’s first combat F-35 wing and Hill’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex performs maintenance on all Air Force F-35s and numerous other military aircraft — from newer, technologically advanced jets like the F-22 to older, battle-proven planes like the A-10.

The base also operates the Utah Test and Training Range in west Utah and eastern Nevada. The facility includes over 1.8 million acres of DOD range land and the largest contiguous piece of special-use airspace in the United States.

A DOD press release says the work at Hill will last approximately three years, with the upcoming year being spent on preparing the site. Full-scale experimentation will happen by year two. Representatives from global technology companies like Nokia, General Dynamics Mission Systems Inc., Booz Allen Hamilton, Key Bridge Wireless LLC, Shared Spectrum Company and Ericsson will all work at Hill during the testing phase.

According to a DOD press release, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia; Naval Base San Diego; and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, will serve also serve as testing sites for of a variety of 5G technologies. 

But just as the DOD announced the program had been funded and is ready to kick off, the GAO released a report that says while 5G will offer increased bandwidth, constant connectivity and faster network response times, which could enhance mobile technologies for the military, it could also usher in new national security risks as "malicious actors" aim to exploit the new technology.

In reviewing the DOD's plan, the GAO says the agency only partially addresses the mitigation of risks to DOD assets and operations — including the threats to critical military operations. The GAO says 5G infrastructure is a "target-rich" environment for adversaries because it includes a large amount of data and devices. As the program unfolds, the GAO report says adversaries will likely seek to steal information and may also disrupt public and private services that rely on communication infrastructure.

The report recommends DOD work with the National Security Council and the National Economic Council to further develop strategies to mitigate risk associated with developing the program.

In a statement, Michael Kratsios, acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said the program, once fully developed, will strengthen the nation’s warfighting capabilities and economic competitiveness.

The program is the latest in a line of significant DOD investments at Hill.

In September, defense and aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman was formally selected by the Air Force to modernize the nation’s aging intercontinental ballistic missile system under a $13.3 billion contract.

Known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program, the work will be headquartered at Hill and involves the United States’ current land-based ballistic missile force, which is now made up of some 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Air Force is upgrading the missiles, their rocket motors and other components but plans to replace them through the GBSD program by about 2030.

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