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Competition to Build 5G Networks, Hypersonics Focus for Pentagon Research Chief

The X-51A Waverider, shown here under the wing of a B-52 Stratobomber is set to demonstrate hypersonic flight. US Air Force Graphic

The Department of Defense has made significant progress in the past 15 months in offensive and defensive hypersonic capabilities to counter developments from China and Russia, its chief engineer said Tuesday. Now, the Pentagon is aiming to make the same kind of progress in developing 5G networks and microelectronics.

“I want to be the offense” when it comes to hypersonics, a technology in which the United State pioneered the underlying research 15 years before, Under Secretary¬†of Defense for¬†Research and Engineering Michael Griffin said at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “we chose not to weaponize it.”

While the U.S. chose initially not to weaponize hypersonics, Beijing and Moscow did “and have developed these systems [that] are quite capable.”

Now, hypersonics top his priority list for engineering and research to close any technological gap against adversaries.

Looking at the challenge the department faces in defending against a hypersonic weapon is that it, “goes into the gap between air defense and missile defense” at great speed and that changes the nature of the threat. He said there would never be enough ships or ground-based air defense positions to deter, detect, or destroy these weapons if they came in great numbers.

That meant use space to keep watch, he said.

“You have to be able to see from further out,” Griffin said in explaining the need for a layer of low-orbit, space-based sensors than monitor more effectively this threat than the best long-range, ground-based radars.

“You need space.”

The hypersonic threat “requires persistent, timely, global defense.” Griffin said, “national [ballistic missile defense] policy is not to try to defend against China and Russia,” but against the threat posed by North Korea and Iran. He added it is “not a technical step up” to defend against Beijing and Moscow but questions of “buying systems we don’t have today” or more of what is already available and fielded have to be addressed to do that.

As for prioritizing 5G networks in the year ahead, Griffin said Pentagon leadership has emphasized the importance of transmitting and using data at speed. Next year’s budget to reflect the new emphasis on telecommunications and the difficulties of employing it in a military context.

“We’re [also] going to have to learn to have communications [in an environment] where people don’t want us to go” or are trying to prevent us from going, he said.

Griffin added the Pentagon could offer the commercial sector and academic researchers venues without local, state or regional permitting restrictions that, “can really speed 5G development.”

He stressed the Defense Department are “customers, not developers” in this arena but is eager to work with others.