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Current, former Pentagon leaders sound alarm on Chinese technology in 5G networks

A display for Huawei’s 5G wireless technology in Beijing last year. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Current and former Pentagon leaders are warning about the risks to future military operations posed by allies in Europe and Asia using Chinese technology in their 5G wireless telecommunications networks.

In a statement Wednesday, six former officials note that the immense bandwidth and super-high speeds of the coming 5G systems — up to 100 times faster than current 4G platforms — will make them attractive for the U.S. military to share data with allies or transfer information in combat.

And they and U.S. defense officials warn that allowing Chinese firms such as Huawei to outfit these networks poses unacceptable risks of espionage and disruptive cyberattacks on military operations because of the firm’s alleged ties to the Chinese government and a 2017 Chinese law that requires companies, if directed, to cooperate in surveillance activities.

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“While our concern is for future operations, the time for action is now,” said the leaders, who include retired Adm. James Stavridis and retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the two most recent commanders of NATO and U.S. European Command; retired Adm. Samuel Locklear III, former head of U.S. Pacific Command; and a former director of national intelligence, retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr.

Their blunt statement — the first by so many former senior commanders — was timed to the Wednesday opening of a NATO summit of foreign ministers in Washington.

“As military leaders who have commanded U.S. and allied troops around the world, we have grave concerns about a future where a Chinese-developed 5G network is widely adopted among our allies and partners,’’ they said.

Pentagon leaders also are sounding the alarm. Last week, Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said at an Atlantic Council conference that China is engaged in a struggle with the United States for “digital supremacy” economically and militarily.

She called for an integrated U.S. government strategy in partnership with Silicon Valley and the investment community to counter China’s ambitions. She warned that if other partners use equipment from a vendor such as Huawei, “we could be overcome quickly with technical overmatch,” which could diminish battlefield advantage.

“If our allies and partners go with a Huawei solution, we need to reconsider how we share critical information with them,” Lord said.

U.S. officials planning for a future in which Huawei has a major share of 5G global networks

Last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr. forecast a “broad, fundamental” threat to national security if Huawei is permitted to build allies’ networks. “A foundational element of an alliance is the ability to share information securely,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

Last month, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan noted a number of Chinese government initiatives that seek to enhance Chinese influence globally, often through questionable means, he said. “With initiatives like the Digital Silk Road, Made in China 2025 and Thousand Talents Program in play, which spur companies and individuals to carry out its bidding, China aims to steal its way to a China-controlled global technological infrastructure, including a 5G network,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Let me be perfectly clear,” he said, “the United States does not oppose competition, as long as it takes place on a fair and level playing field. However, we cannot accept the unfair and illegal actions of others who intend to tilt the playing field through predatory economics and underhanded tactics.”

There is no U.S. supplier of end-to-end 5G network components. The major U.S. telecom companies, which have pledged to exclude Huawei and another Chinese firm, ZTE, from their 5G systems, rely on European providers Ericsson and Nokia and the South Korean firm Samsung. But Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment provider, is making a big play for business with rural carriers in the United States and with countries in Europe and the developing world.

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U.S. law bars the government and its contractors from purchasing gear made by Huawei and ZTE. Legislation is pending in Congress that would prevent U.S. companies from supplying Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies with critical components. The White House has had ready for months an executive order that would effectively ban Chinese companies from the U.S. telecom supply chain.

Countries such as Poland, Estonia and Germany in Europe and Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines in Asia are weighing whether to include Huawei in their next-generation systems. The United States has mounted a campaign to persuade partners that using Huawei poses unacceptable security risks.

The former U.S. commanders said their concerns fall into three categories: espionage, military operations and human rights. Noting the 2017 Chinese law, they alleged that Huawei’s provision of radio antennas and other communications gear could provide the Chinese government with a means to capture data “at will.”

Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, insists his company has never enabled Chinese government espionage and it doesn’t plan to. But U.S. officials are skeptical that the firm would resist a government directive.

The Pentagon is weighing how it might use the future 5G networks to share intelligence or conduct military operations. Former officials say the shortcomings of current satellite communications, which are vulnerable to Chinese and Russian jamming, make 5G wireless systems a logical alternative. But if they use untrustworthy equipment, these officials say, the data could be stolen or manipulated, or operations could be disrupted.

“You’re trying to target an adversary’s capability,’’ said retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, a former Pacific Command director of operations and a former policy director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The data needs to be accurate and near real time and reliable. A 5G network is going to be highly desirable — unless it’s built by Huawei.”

The former officials also said they are concerned that the export of China’s 5G technologies “will advance a pernicious high-tech authoritarianism.”

If Huawei is invited by foreign governments to build their new networks, Beijing could have access to the data of billions of people, they allege. China already leads the world in the deployment of facial and gait recognition in settings ranging from airports to classrooms, and it has created what is probably the world’s largest censorship apparatus to monitor the private messages of 1 billion users on the WeChat app.

In the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, authorities have relied on the sweeping collection of electronic communications to support a detention and internment program that has ensnared more than 1 million Muslim citizens.

The former officials say they fear unbridled data-gathering coupled with information gleaned from 5G networks could give Beijing “unprecedented powers of foreign influence to favor authoritarian allies . . . and punish human-rights activists the world over.”

The other former officials signing the statement are retired Admiral Timothy Keating, former head of Pacific Command, and retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, former director of the National Security Agency.

Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.