Politics

Pentagon officials slam FCC's Ligado 5G decision, citing national security risks

Key Points
  • Pentagon officials on Wednesday slammed a recent Federal Communications Commission decision to allow Ligado to deploy a nationwide mobile broadband network, saying it may disrupt GPS signals crucial to military operations.
  • Last month, the five-member FCC voted unanimously to allow Ligado Networks to deploy a low-power nationwide 5G network despite objections from federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Commerce, as well as major U.S. airlines.
  • "Ligado and 5G simply do not go together. It is clear to the DoD that the risk to GPS far outweighs the benefits of this FCC decision and the FCC needs to reverse their decision," Dana Deasy, the Defense Department's chief information officer, told the committee.
US Space Force General John Raymond testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the impact of the Federal Communications Commission's Ligado Decision on National Security on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on May 6, 2020.
Greg Nash | POOL | AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials on Wednesday slammed a recent Federal Communications Commission decision to allow Ligado to deploy a nationwide mobile broadband network, saying it may disrupt GPS signals crucial to military operations.

"I spent most of my military career, integrating GPS and other space capabilities into everything that we do as a joint force. And today there's absolutely nothing that we do as a joint force that isn't enabled by space and specifically GPS," explained U.S. Space Force Gen. John Raymond in his opening remarks before the Senate Armed Service Committee.

"It [GPS] has revolutionized military operations and it is employed in every step of the kill chain to defeat our adversaries," the nation's top military space officer added.

Dana Deasy, the Defense Department's chief information officer, told the committee that the risk posed by Ligado was significant and unacceptable. 

"Ligado and 5G simply do not go together. It is clear to the DoD that the risk to GPS far outweighs the benefits of this FCC decision and the FCC needs to reverse their decision," Deasy said.

Senator James Inhofe, R-Okla., who chairs the panel, and the top Democrat, Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., both criticized the FCC decision in their opening remarks.

"I do not think it is a good idea to place at risk the GPS signals that enable our national and economic security for the benefit of one company and its investors," Inhofe said. "This is about much more than risking our military readiness and capabilities. Interfering with GPS will hurt the entire American economy."

Several senators from both parties raised concerns that the committee had yet to hear testimony from the FCC or Ligado. 

"There are two sides to this," said Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., adding that it was difficult to "reverse a decision based upon the presence of one side."

Ligado said Wednesday in a statement that it has gone to great lengths to prevent interference and will provide "a 24/7 monitoring capability, a hotline, a stop buzzer or kill switch" and will "repair or replace at Ligado's cost any government device shown to be susceptible to harmful interference."

Pentagon caught off guard by the decision

Dana Deasy, chief information officer at the Department of Defense, adjusts his glasses during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the national security impact of the FCC Ligado Networks decision in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
Shawn Thew | EPA |Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ligado, the wireless satellite venture previously known as LightSquared Inc., emerged from bankruptcy in 2015 and has since been working on a proposal to develop a network reliant on the L-band spectrum that will help telecom companies deploy 5G networks.

Last month, the five-member FCC voted unanimously to allow Ligado Networks to deploy a low-power nationwide 5G network despite objections from federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Commerce, as well as major U.S. airlines.

The FCC has defended its decision, saying it included stringent conditions aimed at ensuring GPS systems would not experience harmful interference and has won backing from U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ligado's plan will use an L-band spectrum that has the potential to disrupt commercial and military GPS signals, therefore raising concerns that the technology will impact U.S. national security.

"I will tell you that historically we have a very good working relationship with the FCC when it comes to collaboratively studying requests like this ... In this particular request, there was not a give and take, a back and forth that we typically go through," Deasy told the committee.

"At the end of the day, we were completely caught off guard. When over that weekend in April, the decision was taken by the FCC to go ahead and move forward," he added.

'The DNA of our way of war'

U.S. Marines observe explosives detonate from a safe distance on a demolitions range at Crow Valley, the Philippines, during Amphibious Landing Exercise.
Staff Sgt. Joseph DiGirolamo | US Marine Corps

Michael Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, said in his Senate testimony that if Ligado carries out its plan, the United States will experience "a self-inflicted wound on GPS."

"While we set out to redesign and refresh hundreds of millions of GPS receivers in our installed national security and industrial base, others, especially Russia and China, will be quick to take advantage of our mistake by offering replacement systems that are not vulnerable to Ligado's interference," Griffin said.

"A weakened GPS system offers our adversaries the opportunity to replace the United States as the world standard for satellite navigation."

When asked to explain the importance of GPS for the military, the nation's top space commander gave an unwavering response.

"It's the DNA of our way of war. It's systemic in everything that we do," Raymond said. 

"The department alone has over a million GPS receivers that are integrated into our space launch vehicles, integrated into our aircraft, tanks on ships on communication networks, and on our most important weapon system, our people. GPS allows us to shoot, move, and communicate with speed, precision and over great distances."

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