Pentagon pushes for more bandwidth, citing 'national security needs'

Modern warfare requires increasing amounts of the electromagnetic spectrum for battlefield communications. The Defense Department is arguing for more, putting it in possible conflict with commercial interests.

Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/AP
An MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.

The Pentagon Thursday released its strategy for securing the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes a heavy warning about the dangers of not getting it right. The electromagnetic spectrum is what the Pentagon and the telecommunications industry both use to communicate.

In the case of the US military, that includes the airwaves it needs to download the nearly continuous stream of surveillance video from drones, to communicate between fighter jet pilots and ground forces, or to send secure information between soldiers in the field using mobile phones and tablets.  

The Pentagon’s demand for these airwaves has been voracious, and it has only grown during a decade of war. In 2002, the US military operated 167 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for example. By 2010, that figure had grown to 7,500, noted Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, the Pentagon’s deputy chief information officer, during a briefing Thursday to unveil the new strategy.

To put the Defense Department’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum in context, senior military officials note that in the 1990s the US military used 90 megahertz of bandwidth for approximately 12,000 troops. Today it uses 305 megahertz for 3,500 troops. 

“So to give you some idea of what we’re talking about here, it’s a balance, obviously, between the commercial needs and the needs of national security,” Wheeler said. 

But the DOD’s growing use of the spectrum has prompted complaints that the Pentagon is “hogging” more than its fair share from the commercial telecommunications industry, which has been lobbying hard for the federal government to open up more access to real estate on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Through the new strategy, Pentagon officials strike a defensive note, arguing that they need access to the electromagnetic spectrum to keep the country safe. 

“I think sometimes, certainly, while we’re trying to meet commercial need, what gets lost is our growing need for spectrum,” posited Teri Takai, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, during the briefing Thursday.

The strategy paper robustly reiterates this point. America’s enemies are “aggressively” developing the means to wage an electronic attack that could “significantly” erode the Pentagon’s ability to conduct military operations, according to the US military strategy unveiled Thursday. 

Even so, Pentagon officials acknowledge the growing needs of the commercial sector, and said they would do what they could to accommodate them and share the spectrum, in order to make more bandwidth available for commercial use. 

The new strategy, which came in at 10 pages, offered few specifics on how the military will do this. 

Senior officials, however, are promising to outline their action plan in the months to come, in which the Pentagon intends to make it clear how it will “be a responsible steward of the spectrum essential to our operations, while working collaboratively to meet the growing demands of the citizens that we serve,” Takai said. 

To that end, she added, “The process will be intense.” 

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