A Modest Proposal: Cut the Intelligence Budget and Use the Money to Build Our Own 5G Systems

Employees step out from a shuttle bus near a Huawei 5G sign on display inside its headquarters in Shenzhen in south China's Guangdong province, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The U.S. intelligence community spends $80 billion a year. That’s more than the whole economy of Oman or Uruguay. The CIA never has undergone an audit. Gen. Michael Flynn proposed to audit the CIA, and look what happened to him. President Trump should pardon Flynn and assign him to the audit. The CIA’s actual spying capacity, or human intelligence (“HUMINT”), collapsed under the Obama administration. China and Iran cracked the CIA’s inept communications channel and rolled up its entire network in both countries. That disaster has been widely reported in the media.

Most of the intelligence community (IC) budget pays for electronic eavesdropping, or Signals Intelligence (SIGINT). In that area the United States long has enjoyed a decisive advantage. That’s about to come to a sudden end, as I reported earlier this week in Asia Times.

The ultimate form of data security is quantum communications, an application of physics that China has pioneered. Two years ago Chinese scientists had a video call with colleagues in Vienna, creating the signal by entangling atoms halfway around the world. The system that makes the communication possible cannot be stolen, because any outside intervention destroys the signal itself. It is like a letter that disintegrates the instant you set eyes on it. Commercial applications of this technology may not be too far away. In 2018, Huawei conducted field trials for data security in optical networks with the Spanish telephone company Telefónica.

The techie equivalent of the Oklahoma Land Rush is underway to embed quantum communications in the new 5G broadband networks under construction around the world. The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei along with British, South Korean, Japanese and other research groups are competing to make data transmission and voice or video calls hack-proof. The technology is proven, so it’s only a matter of time before the screens at the National Security Agency go dark. Quantum communications shift the balance of power in communications to the defense. It doesn’t matter whether you have powerful computers, for example, quantum computers, because you destroy the signal simply by observing it.

That, I believe, explains the furor in America’s spook world over Huawei’s prospective domination of 5G telecommunications. The spooks claim that Huawei will use back doors in its hardware to steal everyone’s data. No doubt Chinese intelligence will use every opportunity at its disposal to steal data, but that’s beside the point: No-one will be able to hack the next generation of data networks. Since the U.S. has a decisive advantage in SIGINT, China is the relative winner if no-one can read the world’s email.

The real disaster in China’s domination of 5G isn’t data hacking. 5G is the thin end of a technological wedge that includes the Internet of Things, factory-floor automation, autonomous vehicles, and coordination of drone swarms. The last item on the list might be the most important development in warfare since the ballistic missile. A very large number of small, cheap drones acting in concert through Artificial Intelligence systems may be able to defeat everything that presently flies. If China controls 5G technology, it is all the more likely to prevail in the spinoff technologies.

So here’s a modest proposal. What has the CIA done for us lately? The IC has created a vast, unaudited empire that no-one can monitor, let alone control. So let’s cut the intelligence budget to, say, $10 billion a year, and spend the $70 billion we save on creating a superior American 5G product. $70 billion is roughly what Huawei has spent on R&D during the past ten years. Our exhortations to allies not to work with Huawei have been ignored, which is not surprising, because no American company sells 5G systems. It’s time to create one.