Executives of major U.S. airlines and cargo shippers have warned that this week’s nationwide roll-out of 5G services from wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon could cause “catastrophic disruption” of flights. It could even result in further supply chain bottlenecks. Many international airlines have actually canceled flights or changed planes used in routes to the United States.

On Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon announced that they would delay launching new wireless service near key airports. The carriers said that while they will continue with the launch of 5G, they would pause turning on 5G cell towers within a 2-mile radius of runways designated by federal officials.

It remains unclear how long the telecommunications companies would keep their 5G towers idle.

Military Aircraft Impacted by 5g

While the airlines and cargo shippers have expressed concerns, one question is how U.S. military aircraft might be impacted by 5G interference.

Some military aircraft rely on the same radar altimeters as commercial aircraft, and the altimeters are necessary to land when visibility is an issue.

“The military planes would be impacted if they’re using the same radar altimeters on the C band of the spectrum,” explained Ken Gray, senior lecturer at the University of New Haven. “For those aircraft 5G may cause interference and that would be an issue in poor weather conditions as the devices specify the right altitude on the approach.”

Unlike with civilian aircraft, the military can’t be as flexible about dealing with extreme weather.

“The military has to be able to fly in all kinds of weather conditions,” Gray told ClearanceJobs. “The civilian aviation world can cancel flights, but the military has to be able to operate 24/7. This could certainly impact the military.”

Other Interference

Not every U.S. military aircraft is so affected by 5G wireless signals however. So for many combat aircraft the switch to 5G isn’t an issue.

“Military aircraft are hardened against almost any interference; if a powerful radio could cause them to crash, that would be a design problem for the aircraft,” said technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.

“This complaint seems odd given the amount of testing and the initial 5G rollouts, which hasn’t appeared to cause any problems with aircraft in other countries,” Enderle told ClearanceJobs. “This complaint by the airlines suggests either a colossal amount of negligence on the airlines part given the decades-long development of 5G or a convenient distraction from something else the airlines don’t want any focus on.”

A bigger concern, warned Enderle, is how vocal the airlines have been about the dangers presented by 5G. Already pilots are facing threats from lasers flashed from users on the ground and from drones. Now there is a growing concern that 5G could somehow be “weaponized” to be used to disrupt civil aviation.

“We live in a rather hostile world, and broadcasting that airlines can be crashed by robust radios that bad actors rather than carriers could deploy would seem to highlight a high-priority design defect,” Enderle explained. “A high-powered radio would be far cheaper and simpler to deploy than a ground-to-air missile system suggesting, assuming this exposure is authentic, that hardening the planes against that type of attack should have a higher priority than a missile defense system which some have been asking for.”

Future Disruptions

5G has long been touted for how crucial the technology could be for the deployment of autonomous vehicles, faster rural Internet and more secure communications. Yet, this week the discussion isn’t what 5G is providing, but the disruptions it could cause.

“One issue could be that the FAA has only cleared 45% of the US commercial airline fleet to perform where 5G C-Band has been deployed,” said Enderle. “This over reaction may be driven by a desire to limit potential liability IF a problem emerges. So the cause for all of this could be an FAA execution problem which might be connected to the pandemic staffing issues.”

The other part of the story is that the 5G rollout hasn’t been met with nearly as much backlash in other parts of the world.

“France was able to get around its issues by reducing the power of 5G near airports,” Gray noted. “We may get there, at some point, but we should have been better prepared.”

Thus far however, 5G seems to cause more concerns – including those related to security – than it solves.

“Given the long development time for 5G, it seems incredibly odd to flag this as a problem right before localized deployment, after much of China, other parts of Asia, and Europe have already deployed,” added Enderle. “In short, we likely don’t know the real reason for this complaint yet, but this late in the deployment cycle, a complaint of this magnitude should be resulting in more red flags about the process than it currently is. This draconian reaction appears to be more a problem with the process of approvals than an actual problem for the planes at the moment.”

5G and the Military

Despite the issues that 5G may present to the aviation sector, it will present new opportunities to the military, along with some challenges as well.

“The benefits of 5G technology for the military are innumerable: applications to include C2 [command and control], logistics, maintenance, training, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) systems,” said Scheherazade S. Rehman, PhD, deans professorial fellow of international finance & professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

“All these will benefit from improved data speeds and lower latency,” Rehman told ClearanceJobs. “Defense communications companies all agree 5G-enabled military solutions will be deployed sooner than later. This will revolutionize the manner in which the armed forces will connect and communicate.”

5G could also radically change three areas in the military: interoperability; electronic warfare (EV); and AI-pairing for ISR.

“The spread of 5G mobile communications technology, however, is generating unique challenges for the U.S. military as compromised networks could give enemy combatants occasion to monitor and attack U.S. personnel,” added Rehman. “Special-operations and conventional forces will need to combat 5G threats when deployed globally – combat missions or other operations including general reconnaissance.”

The threat could be present if the U.S. military connects its 5G systems to one that isn’t hardened accordingly.

This may involve a foreign partner, which increases the risk of foreign technology-based threats. It’s especially challenging if partners have installed Chinese and Russian-manufactured and controlled telecommunications infrastructure, which could compromise local networks, used to gather mission critical information, identities, tactics, techniques, and procedures,” explained Rehman. “While western governments are aware of the growing Chinese threat in this space through companies like Huawei, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America are embracing the low cost Chinese company in their networks in spite of the privacy and security concerns.”


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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.