Push to Expand 5G Coverage Would Cost USAF At Least $2 Billion, Brown Says

The sale to commercial entities of the 3.3-3.45 gigahertz portion of the electromagnetic spectrum—called the S-band—would cost the Department of the Air Force well upwards of $2 billion, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week.

Telecommunications companies seeking to grow their 5G business, and some members of Congress, are urging the Federal Communications Commission to auction off access to the S-band, after a bill to permit it died in the last session of Congress. Similar auctions for other parts of the spectrum have generated billions of dollars for the government in recent year.

Military leaders continue to balk, however, saying the loss of that part of the spectrum would severely compromise their operations.

“There’s a number of weapon systems that operate within that band,” Brown told the SASC on May 2. “I’ll just give you one example: our C-130 station keeping [equipment].

“If that band was actually moved and we had to redesign, it will cost roughly about $2 billion, just for that one platform. And we have a number of platforms that operate within … the S-band, so it’s critical that we understand the impact” of its loss to commercial use, Brown said.

The C-130 system Brown referred to is the AN/APN-243, which allows the aircraft to fly in formation in blackout conditions. The system provides highly accurate altitude and course information, as well as proximity warnings to prevent the aircraft from colliding in the absence of visual cues. It allows up to 36 aircraft to fly in tight formation in zero visibility.

There would be still other system redesigns required if the Air Force lost access to the S-band, Brown added, though he did not specify them.

Saltzman, asked to add the Space Force perspective, said “that particular band is a radar band that allows us to look into deep space.”

In particular, the Space Force is developing a radar in that band to enhance its space domain awareness, Saltzman said.

“If we were not able to use that piece of spectrum, not only would we lose the time that we’ve already invested—[and] as much as several hundred million dollars that we’ve already put into development—but it would also mean that we have to use a different portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which isn’t as capable in determining and discriminating capabilities in deep space,” he explained.

Brown and Saltzman are not the only military leaders to offer warnings about a potential S-band sale. Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command, told lawmakers in March that “multiple platforms” that he relies on would be significantly harmed by the change.

These include “maritime homeland defense systems, airborne early warning platforms [and] ground-based early warning platforms that enable me to provide threat warning, attack assessment and defend from potentially airborne [threats],” VanHerck said.

The Navy’s Aegis air defense radar system uses the S-Band, and assistant secretary of defense for space policy John Plumb, told House lawmakers in March that redesigning Aegis would cost in excess of $120 billion. The Aegis is considered to be one of the only threat detection and tracking radars capable of spotting hypersonic missiles.

In a March 16 report, the Congressional Research Service agreed that allowing commercial access to S-Band would impose big costs on the military services.

“While an auction of the segment for commercial use could drive wireless expansion and generate significant revenues,” the CRS said, “technical experts assert that reallocation of the band from federal to nonfederal use would require complex and high-cost modifications to DOD systems and would affect DOD operations.”

A bill passed in the House last year, the “Spectrum Innovation Act,” would have allowed telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon to buy S-band access at auction. A corresponding Senate bill never passed, and the bill wasn’t included in the fiscal 2023 federal appropriations bill.