Chinese wireless tech could put Offutt Air Force Base and Nebraska missile silos at risk

U.S. Rep. Mike Flood wants update on Huawei equipment under scrutiny by Commerce Department

By: - September 17, 2022 4:30 am

The U.S. Air Force Heartland of America Band performs during the 55th Wing Headquarters Building Dedication in 2021 at Offutt Air Force Base (Courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Josh Plueger)

BELLEVUE, Nebraska — More than 10,000 military members and civilians working at Offutt Air Force Base could be at risk of having cell phone calls, texts and data seen by the Chinese government because at least one cellular service provider installed Chinese equipment on nearby towers.

U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., talks to reporters at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

The U.S. Commerce Department is investigating the potential data collection and transmission capabilities of equipment from Chinese tech company Huawei that was installed on cell towers near U.S. military installations, including missile silos in western Nebraska, as Reuters reported.

U.S. Rep. Mike Flood, R-Neb., wrote to the Commerce Department this week seeking an update on the investigation, which he said he supports. He sought confirmation from Commerce about any Huawei tech on cell towers within 20 miles of Offutt or other Nebraska military facilities. 

Huawei equipment has been found that close to Offutt and to nuclear missile silos in Cheyenne County, home to Sidney, several sources told the Nebraska Examiner. State and federal leaders have not yet discussed specifics publicly.

“I think it’s a slap in the face to every airman that goes to work,” said Flood, whose 1st Congressional District includes Offutt. “I want to know where this is in Nebraska, what companies are using it and why it hasn’t been removed.” 

Adm. Charles Richard, commander of Offutt’s U.S. Strategic Command, acknowledged during a conference in July the reality of nation-states trying to access military information. He said U.S. intelligence services and others are working to protect key military assets from cyberattack.

Huawei was founded by former members of the Chinese military. The company has denied that its equipment is a spying threat or that it is working in concert with the Chinese government. Tech experts say the Chinese state can force companies in China to share users’ information.

Crystal Rhoades, a Democrat who represents much of the Omaha area on Nebraska’s Public Service Commission, would not discuss the locations of specific cell phone towers in Nebraska with Chinese equipment on them, citing national security concerns.

Public Service Commissoiner Crystal Rhoades. (Courtesy of Rhoades for Public Service Commission)

But she said nearly every Viaero Wireless tower in Nebraska has Huawei equipment on it. She said the company has discussed applying for up to $330 million in federal funds to rip out and replace Chinese equipment in Nebraska with tech approved by the U.S. Department of Defense. The company did not return repeated messages seeking comment.

“This is a big deal,” Rhoades said. “It needs to get fixed.”

Flood said he hopes the Commerce Department acts with a sense of urgency. He said the United Kingdom banned the use of Huawei equipment on its cell towers, and the U.S. should be able to act with similar speed. He said the public needs answers, and soon.

“China is a real threat,” Flood said. “We can’t trust Chinese technology when it comes to protecting our national security. … My hope is this should not be drawn out.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.