SASC Prohibits DOD From Complying With “Misguided” FCC Ligado Decision

SASC Prohibits DOD From Complying With “Misguided” FCC Ligado Decision

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved its version of the FY2021 defense authorization bill yesterday and shared some of its provisions today. Among them, the committee prohibits DOD from spending money to comply with the FCC’s decision to allow Ligado to use frequencies close to those used for the GPS system until certain conditions are met.  DOD and many SASC members strongly oppose the FCC decision.

In one of its rare hearings since the coronavirus pandemic changed how Congress conducts its work, a substantial number of SASC members agreed with DOD witnesses on May 6 that allowing Ligado to operate a terrestrial 5G broadband wireless system in a frequency band adjacent to GPS could jeopardize a wide range of national security capabilities.

The sentiment was not universal.  Some committee members wanted to hear FCC’s side of the story, but SASC chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-RI) were among the strongest voices calling for the FCC to reverse its decision. Their counterparts on HASC agree, as do a number of government agencies and companies.

The FCC is under the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, however, not SASC.  That committee is chaired by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who is a member of SASC and remained noncommittal at the hearing.

Without the authority to directly influence FCC’s actions, SASC instead is including a provision in the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that prohibits DOD from spending any money to implement the FCC’s decision until  DOD tells Congress how much it will cost to comply and the committee obtains an independent technical review of Ligado’s and DOD’s approaches to testing that led to opposite conclusions as to whether harmful interference would occur.

According to a committee summary of the bill released today:

“The bill protects critical national security equities and outlines a path forward following the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) misguided decision to approve Ligado Networks’ request for bandwidth for a terrestrial-based cellular network, that put critical GPS signals at risk. As our warfighters rely on these signals, the bill prohibits the use of DOD funds to comply with the FCC Order on Ligado until the Secretary of Defense submits an estimate of the costs associated with the resulting GPS interference, and directs the Secretary of Defense to contract with the National Academies of Science and Engineering for an independent technical review of the order to provide additional technical evaluation to review Ligado’s and DOD’s approaches to testing.”

The bill also transitions all functions and responsibilities related to DOD use of the electromagnetic spectrum to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command  (USSTRATCOM) in order to “provide better oversight and advocacy as these operations are integrated into the joint warfighting concept.”  That includes defining additional responsibilities for the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, currently Gen. John Hyten, until recently the Commander of USSTRATCOM.

In other space-related matters, the bill requires a report on the selection process and criteria to be used for a permanent location for U.S. Space Command.  Reestablished last year after a 17-year hiatus, it is temporarily housed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO.  The Air Force had narrowed the field of potential permanent sites to six (four in Colorado, one in California and one in Alabama), but Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett recently reopened the competition to the delight of some and consternation of others.

The committee’s summary includes a section highlighting key decisions related to space superiority.  Details must await release of the bill itself and accompanying committee report.  Quite a few provide direction to the U.S. Space Force as it stands up its organization. The Space Force was created in last year’s NDAA as part of the U.S. Air Force.  It is sometimes confused with U.S. Space Command. Space Force is one of six military services with the mandate to “organize, train, and equip” personnel. Space Command is one of 11 unified combatant commands in charge of warfighting using personnel from all the services as needed.

Excerpt from the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Executive Summary of its version of the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act, June 11, 2020.

In a conference call this morning,  Inhofe said the bill was approved 25-2 and in his view that is unanimous since two Senators, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), always vote against it.  The seven subcommittees marked up their portions of the bill on Monday and Tuesday.  Full committee markup was yesterday. Inhofe said they dealt with 391 amendments and voted on 229 of them.  All of the markups were closed to the public except the Personnel Subcommittee.

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