5G Military Applications: High Frequencies, High Potential, High Obstacles
(Source: special to Defense-Aerospace.com; posted Oct. 12, 2022)

By Comité Rochefort
Intel's 5G solutions are integrated into Lockheed Martin's 5G.MIL Hybrid Base Station, which acts as a multi-network gateway for ubiquitous communications between military personnel and platforms such as satellites, aircraft, ships and ground vehicles. (Intel image)

PARIS --- While the deployment of 5G commercial mobile networks is already ongoing, this technology is still in its early days, and yet to achieve its full potential globally. In many countries, however, militaries have undertaken efforts to leverage it, exploring future use-cases and new, 5G-enabled combat capabilities. Let’s look at some of the key operational applications of 5G for defense, along with their limits and implementation challenges.

5G technology: What are we talking about?

Looking first at the network architecture, it is important to note that the core of 5G technology rests on a cloud-native software design, and enables network function virtualization. In other terms, contrarily to preexisting cellular networks, 5G is scalable and modular: through “network slicing”, the needs of specific users can be catered on a given band of the spectrum. In this sense, 5G is the first network adopting a “service-based architecture.” Yet, such “private networks” can still exchange information with public networks.

Another key characteristic of this architecture is the use of the massive multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO) technology. To put it very plainly, massive MIMO multiplies the amount of transmitters and receivers on a given base station, thus achieving considerable array gain, spectral width and energy efficiency, as well data throughput, while unlocking the beamforming capabilities necessary to reduce electromagnetic signal path losses.

Finally, looking at the frequency bands used by 5G, one notices that much of the spectrum is shared with preexisting 4G radiocommunications. However, while the latter operates on lower frequencies and over a rather restrained spectrum (from 700MHz to 2.3GHz), 5G also spreads to the “mid-band” sub-6GHz spectrum, and to millimeter wave bands, starting at 24GHz. Using such high frequencies enables to reduce latency even more, but brings other difficulties, discussed below.

Bearing these elements in mind, let us now pinpoint some of the most salient applications anticipated in the military field, although the number of use-cases is far too great to be accounted for here.

What 5G brings to C2

In military circles, much of the doctrinal discussion of recent years revolved around so-called “multi-domain operations” concepts, and the related program of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) in the US. Both concepts ultimately refer to the interconnection of large numbers of sensors across all domains, and subsequent dispatching of data to all forces. This objective creates a dire need to make use of a wider portion of the radiofrequency spectrum while benefitting from lower latency times, which 5G enables.

Another advantage brought by 5G for Command & Control (C2) is that of decentralization. Following the publication of its 5G Strategy document in May 2020, the DoD consecrated $600mn in October 2020 to several 5G experimentation programs, including one focusing on “Distributed C2”. The objective is to make Air Operation Centers more resilient, moving C2 away from fixed bases. This concept has occasionally been summed up with the following formula: “centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution.” To date, the experiment is still ongoing, and no information has filtered about its recent advances.

More practically, control over 5G infrastructure will be required to ensure that Western forces have the ability to carry out C2 activities without fears of interception or interference. When operating in foreign countries, this means that militaries will have to be extremely wary of the risks coming with the use of local infrastructure for military purposes.

In this context, forces “must consider they are operating under a constant state of surveillance while deployed overseas”, said the former US Special Operation Command’s chief cryptologist Herm Hasken in an interview to Insider. Hence the crucial need to develop mission-ready, deployable infrastructure, especially given the vast number of countries worldwide having opted for Huawei 5G technology.

5G unlocking new operational capabilities

Moving to the battlefield, 5G applications will bring a large quantity of potential uses of interest to all armed services. The aim here is not to be exhaustive, since new applications are continuously being imagined: the European Defence Agency for instance issued a call for a study on 5G in Security and Defence as recently as last June, notably aiming to “identify 5G’s applicable applications in the military environment”, with results expected to follow in mid-2023. Rather, our point here is to give a sense of the wide spectrum of applications imaginable.

Another of the five experimentation projects funded by the DoD is the development of “a scalable, resilient, and secure 5G network to provide a test bed for experimentation with a 5G-enabled Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality capability for mission planning, distributed training, and operational use.” Put more simply: 5G could help connect military units across various domains and places to propose more realistic real-time training solutions.

--Offensive capabilities:
When it comes to the future of the warfare, many of the innovations discussed today will actually rely on 5G networks, given the high data throughput and low latency they require. This is notably the case for hypersonic weapons, which will need to be able to deflect from their initial trajectory in fractions of seconds in order to dodge interceptors. This is also the case for the autonomous systems cooperation and swarming. These applications (and more) require 5G networks to be used in conjunction with other game-changing technologies, notably Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning algorithms.

Whilst remote robotic surgery is often being discussed in relation to 5G and the Internet of Things, such an application into military medicine is not as much reflected upon. Yet, remote surgery at point-of-need would be a revolution on the battlefield, where the care of wounded soldiers is highly risky and often carries extreme logistics difficulties. Such an innovation would also leverage advanced robotics and AR/VR, in order to enable the medic to operate from a safer place.

Technical challenges and security preoccupations

So far, most of the commercially available solutions rely on low and mid-band frequencies, meaning they do not need to benefit from the lowest latency enabled by 5G. This is for instance the case of Saab’s DeployNet solution, unveiled last February, which was designed to provide a mission-ready deployable tactical 5G infrastructure for challenging environments. However, recent months saw numerous successful demonstrations of 5G-millimeter-Wave-enabled capabilities.

Lockheed Martin, in particular, has been quite proactive as part of the development of its 5G.MIL solutions, which “integrate military communications with tactical gateway capabilities and enhanced 5G technology to enable seamless, resilient and secure connectivity and data flow across all battlefield assets”. In September, Lockheed and AT&T successfully tested high-speed data transfer from a Black Hawk Helicopter to a multi-site pilot network, reducing data transmission time from about 30 minutes to only 5. That same month, the American OEM and Verizon demonstrated high-speed real-time data transfer from four ISR drones through the use of 5G-mmWave.

However, although 5G-mmWave is being praised for the very low latency it brings and its higher resistance to jamming and EW attacks, such frequencies have a reduced range (of generally about 100 to 150 meters), and thereby require an extensive use of repeaters.

In a context of operations in remote, hostile territory, reliance on such frequencies might make it more complex to ensure stable control over the electromagnetic signal. Besides, unlike lower frequencies, mmWaves do not have the same propagation and penetration characteristics, and may be attenuated or stopped by obstacles like walls.

Finally, looking at cybersecurity, the overall architecture of 5G telecommunications has prompted efforts to imagine the most suitable approach. With a larger number of devices and sensors connecting and interacting on the network, the targetable surface is much larger for attackers, even when Huawei infrastructure and devices are no longer in the picture! Two main approaches are therefore being considered: the use of network slicing to isolate the infected parts of the network (combined with Machine-learning detection algorithms), and the so-called “Zero-Trust approach”, which would require every device to have automatic security embedded in their initial configuration.

Beyond operations, many more perspectives and challenges

Operational 5G technology will also impact militaries in the field of maintenance as well as the whole defense industry more broadly. Predictive maintenance, the Internet of Things (IOT) and the advent of the so-called “Smart Warehouse” need to leverage 5G networks in order to collect and manage large flows of data about platforms components.

Two of the five experiments launched by the DoD in October 2020 purposed to establish such networks. One of them, developed collaboratively by the DoD, the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific, the Naval Supply Systems Command, and several other bodies, was effectively inaugurated last May at Naval Base Colorado (which is part of Naval Base San Diego).

Defense manufacturers are very aware of the critical need of modularity in new generations of platforms, not only in order to integrate the benefits of 5G, but also to prepare for next generations of telecommunications networks. As Hervé Guillou, the former CEO of Naval Group, once put it: “Whilst 5G is at the center of political debates, we are already working on the technological implications of 12G for our equipment.”

Ultimately, another key challenge for actual 5G military use is both administrative and technical in nature, and concerns the normative framework under which 5G-enabled innovations will unfold. The issue of 5G standardization, which stretches well beyond the sole military sector, is however quite acute in defense, as these networks will have to enable a high level of interoperability among allied forces.

In addition to this interoperability issue, there is also a crucial need to bring the civil and military spheres closer to each other, in order to benefit from the full potential of the available 5G infrastructure. This topic, however, translates differently in each country, depending on the existing set of rules about spectrum allocation management military telecommunications users.

All things considered, the potential of 5G networks for militaries does not seem to be overstated. However, in order to leverage it in the best way possible, significant technical and normative challenges will have to be solved when it will come to demonstrating effective new capabilities in the field, rather than on test-beds.


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