The Pentagon is pressing federal and commercial players to yield as much space as they can on the electromagnetic radiation frequency spectrum to help meet the voracious appetite of the U.S. military’s current fleet of drones and its next-generation F-35 stealth jet.
The effort puts the Defense Department in direct competition with the nation’s most potent EFM bandwidth competitor: the everyday cellphone user.
“We are not making the assumption that we will have to make do with less spectrum,” the Defense Department’s chief information officer, Teri Takai, told reporters last week as she unveiled the Pentagon’s electromagnetic spectrum strategy.
The spectrum refers to the finite amount of space shared by all radio frequency users — a massive base that consists of the military, federal government agencies, private companies and every person who uses a cellphone or wireless Internet.
The Pentagon wants to reconfigure the spectrum space to accommodate its training and mission needs.
Jim Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. demand for electromagnetic spectrum has increased by about 20 percent a year, in part because an increasing number of people are using 4G cellular phones and watching streaming videos.
“DOD developed all of its applications when we were kind of in a spectrum-rich environment, so you didn’t have to think about being efficient,” he said. “What happened, of course, is cellphones.”
A 10-page strategy document developed by the Pentagon sets out to address what Ms. Takai described as “short- and long-term spectrum challenges” as they relate to “the growing U.S. demand for wireless broadband services.”
“We train our pilots in the U.S., and we are very heavily spectrum-dependent in order to do that training,” Ms. Takai told reporters Thursday. “If, in fact, we are in an environment where we have interference with the spectrum that we use, we either have to limit the amount of training or … we can have instances where we will have interference during the time that that training is taking place.”
Nearly all the military’s aircraft need some form of modernization to keep up with the growing dependence on electromagnetic spectrum frequencies for training and war fighting. That issue could affect how the Pentagon decides which aircraft to retire and which to update.
A Defense Department fact sheet said military officials began developing the electromagnetic spectrum strategy after the 2010 release of an Obama administration memorandum titled “Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution.”
The memorandum requires 500 megahertz of spectrum to be freed up for commercial use by 2020.
Ms. Takai has said it will cost roughly $18 billion for all federal agencies to reallocate electromagnetic spectrum to meet the growing needs of the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft programs.
She and other officials refused to comment last week on how much of that cost will come out of Defense Department budgets.
However, the Pentagon is expected to front about $13 billion, meaning the rest of the federal government may have to come up with the other $5 billion.
Ms. Takai deflected questions about such figures during a press conference Thursday at the Pentagon.
“The reason why we are not giving you a specific number is that we are working right now very closely with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on meeting their goal and the president’s goal, making 500 megahertz available, and so our actions right now are directed in that way,” she said.
Mr. Lewis said average U.S. citizens will not have to give up their creature comforts so the Pentagon can acquire additional electromagnetic spectrum for its war-fighting weapons.
“If we do this right, there shouldn’t be any problems for consumers,” he said.
The Pentagon’s strategy is essentially an effort “to be more proactive than reactive,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Wheeler, a Defense Department spokesman for command, control, communications and computers and information infrastructure capabilities.
Gen. Wheeler said that in the 1990s, the Defense Department had 90 MHz of bandwidth that was used for approximately 12,000 troops. Now, he said, the department needs about 305 MHz for 35,000 troops.
Learning to share the finite electromagnetic spectrum with the commercial, nonmilitary world is of utmost importance, he said. “We both have a plan going forward to balance the national security needs as well as the needs for the commercial side to keep us competitive around the world.”
During a House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing in June, Mr. Wheeler described the radio frequency spectrum as vital and scarce.
“No spectrum repurposing decision is without risk, but risks can and must be managed,” Mr. Wheeler told lawmakers. “Together, we will develop long-term solutions to achieving a balance between national security spectrum requirements and meeting the demand — and the expanding demand of commercial broadband services.”
Ms. Takai said the Pentagon is working closely with federal regulatory agencies and policymakers, such as the National Telecommunications Information Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House office of science and technology policy, to achieve Defense Department spectrum goals.
Defense Daily reported that the Defense Department also has been cooperating with three major wireless providers since mid-2013 to evaluate sharing broadband space.
The effort has allowed for wireless providers on select Defense Department sites to monitor the spectrum and develop an understanding of the sharing environment.