Written for National Defense Magazine
The Pentagon is launching a new initiative that will shape its long-term plans for integrating 5G networks into U.S. military operations. The emerging technology is viewed as a potential gamechanger as the United States squares off against China in great power competition.
The term 5G refers to the oncoming fifth generation of wireless networks and technologies that will yield a major improvement in data speed, volume and latency over today’s fourth generation networks, known as 4G. 5G networks are expected to be up to 20 times as fast, according to a Defense Innovation Board study published earlier this year titled, “The 5G Ecosystem: Risks & Opportunities for DoD.”
“The shift from 4G to 5G will drastically impact the future of global communication networks and fundamentally change the environment in which DoD operates,” the report said. “5G has the ability to enhance DoD decision-making and strategic capabilities from the enterprise network to the tactical edge of the battlefield.
“5G will increase DoD’s ability to link multiple systems into a broader network while sharing information in real-time [and] improving communication across services, geographies and domains while developing a common picture of the battlefield to improve situational awareness,” it added.
The improved connectivity may enable a slew of new technologies, such as hypersonic weapons, resilient satellite constellations and mesh networks, it noted.
5G is a top priority for the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and the Pentagon is kicking off a new effort to experiment with the technology for various mission sets.
On Nov. 29 the department released a special notice seeking industry input. Responses are being accepted through Dec. 16. Two additional draft requests for prototype proposals are expected to be released in the coming weeks. The feedback from industry will inform the creation and issuance of formal RPPs.
The Defense Department has selected four bases as the first U.S. military installations to host testing and experimentation for 5G technology: Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Hill Air Force Base, Utah; Naval Base San Diego, California; and Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia.
The first round of opportunities will focus on three areas: integrating augmented reality and virtual reality into mission planning and training in both virtual and live environments on training ranges; developing “smart” warehouses to leverage 5G’s ability to enhance logistics operations and maximize throughput; and establishing a dynamic spectrum sharing testbed to demonstrate the capability to use 5G in congested environments with high-power, mid-band radars.
5G could enable the next-generation training paradigm that the services are pursuing, which includes linking virtual and augmented reality systems on a global scale, officials say.
“It’s going to give you better bandwidth, lower latency — so a better, more realistic experience,” Lisa Porter, deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said in an interview. Porter is overseeing the Pentagon’s 5G efforts.
“For mission training and planning and all of those activities … it has to be as realistic as possible or it’s just not going to be very useful,” she added.
5G could also help drive down the costs of linking systems around the world, enabling them to be more widely deployed, she noted.
“Everybody should be able to have access to this capability … and you’d like them to be able to talk to each other” and experience collective immersion during training events, Porter said. “To do that, of course you have to have the cost low enough that we can afford that.”
Augmented reality, or AR, could have many military uses, said Joe Evans, the Pentagon’s technical director for 5G. The technology transposes data or other digitally created images on top of a real-world field of view.
“We already see that sort of thing at the high end in things like the F-35 helmets,” he said. “This is an opportunity … with the technology getting cheaper to start to be able to push that out to the broader force.”
AR combined with high-speed 5G networks also offers new possibilities for sustainment and maintenance, said a senior defense official who spoke to National Defense on condition of anonymity.
“The ability to assist our technicians in the field and understanding what they’re doing and the complex issues that they’re often involved in in fixing advanced fighter aircraft or cargo aircraft … is a major industrial inflection point,” the official said.
“Now all of a sudden because of the latency [reduction] … we both can test and verify the repair as it’s occurring,” he added. That could help keep cutting edge systems such as the joint strike fighter in the air rather than sitting in a maintenance depot.
The Defense Department envisions 5G streamlining the military’s massive logistics enterprise and improving inventory management if it is employed in “smart” warehouses filled with a variety of sensors that are used for monitoring parts and equipment.
“You want to be able to … have high confidence that you know what is there, where it is going, whether it’s come in or not. You want to make sure it hasn’t been tampered with.
All of these things are further enabled when you have high confidence in the connectivity and your ability to manage it,” Porter said.
Evans said increasing materiel throughput and the speed at which it moves is critical for supplying warfighters with the products they need.
“One of the problems with 4G and even WiFi types of technologies is they really weren’t designed to be having tens of thousands of individual wireless devices talking to the cell site or the access point,” he said. “What 5G is doing is essentially increasing that scale. And so from a single access point, you can now track greater volume of individual items in the warehouse [and do] the finer grain tracking.”
As 5G technology is rolled out, the Pentagon wants to pursue what it calls dynamic spectrum sharing between the military and industry, especially as it relates to the mid-band part of the electromagnetic spectrum that the Defense Department uses for radars and other systems.
Portions of the mid-band are a “sweet spot” for 5G because the frequency enables more bandwidth and greater range, Porter explained.
“The Department of Defense and other federal agencies and then industry, particularly the carriers … are all clamoring for access to a very limited amount of what you might call real estate” on the spectrum, she said.
Today, the military is assigned a certain number of frequencies to operate in the United States. Companies are granted licenses by the Federal Communications Commission and parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are auctioned off for their use. But at any given time, much of the spectrum is not being used, she noted.
“There’s actually a lot of opportunity here,” Porter said. “When I’m not using my spectrum, can someone else use it? Can we develop some sharing rules that allow [the military and the private sector] to use each other’s spectrum … in an efficient way?”
Opening up the spectrum would create greater capacity for users. But the challenge is to do it in a way that military and commercial systems don’t interfere with each other, she said. “It requires some kind of agreements about how we’re going to operate.”
Artificial intelligence will be a critical component of dynamic spectrum sharing, she noted.
“Artificial intelligence allows you to speed this up because if you rely on a person trying to figure this out, it’s too slow,” she said.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently held a Spectrum Collaboration Challenge with industry that involved AI. The results will help shape the Pentagon’s 5G initiatives.
“The DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge provided some of the technology underpinnings to make those decisions on how you share those spectrum bands,” Evans said.
“What we want to do is take some of those capabilities and then apply it to this mid-band types of spectrum.”
Defense officials will be going out to test ranges at Hill Air Force Base to explore how a 5G system could operate effectively in coexistence or in coordination with mid-band radars.
Dynamic spectrum sharing could give the military a leg up over its competitors such as China, which is rolling out its own 5G networks, Porter said.
“If the United States figures this out especially with our allies and partners, this puts us in a very strong competitive posture globally,” she said. “We’re going to be able to do things with far more capacity and far more efficiency.”
Dynamic spectrum sharing won’t just have implications for military operations. It will also affect acquisitions, the senior defense official noted.
“By understanding and getting down to the science required, the policies required, it helps then inform and postures us for the next generation of systems that we’re researching and then acquiring,” the official said.
As it builds out its 5G capabilities, the Pentagon wants to leverage the hundreds of billions of dollars that the commercial sector is investing in the technology to enable ubiquitous connectivity, lower latency, higher bandwidth and edge computing. However, that creates security concerns, Porter noted.
“When you start connecting everything to everything else, wow, that’s a lot of complexity,” she said. “We don’t know every vulnerability that’s going to emerge, but we’ve got to try to understand that and then develop an architecture, if you will, that allows us to mitigate and to do risk management smartly.”
The Pentagon, the defense industrial base and the commercial companies building the nation’s 5G networks need to work together to develop protocols for protecting networks, she said.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department plans to use other transaction authority agreements for its upcoming 5G initiatives. The RPPs will go through the National Spectrum Consortium. Companies that aren’t a member of the consortium can still participate as a subcontractor for members that win a contract award, Porter noted.
The number and timing of contract awards will depend on congressional funding and the quality of the proposal submissions, she said.
The Defense Department plans to add new 5G opportunities roughly every quarter. As of press time, the focus areas for the next round had yet to be determined.
Porter declined to say how much money the department plans to invest in these initiatives.
“I don’t like folks to try to game to a number,” she said. “I want them to give us their best ideas and a realistic execution plan against that idea … and we will work to make sure that the best of those get funded.”
While the Pentagon has ambitious plans for 5G, it plans to take a “crawl, walk, run” approach to rolling out the technology, Porter said.
“We’re going to start here in the U.S because that makes the most sense,” she said. “We’re going to start with four [bases], … learn and then expand.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story was published in the December issue of National Defense. This story has been updated to include information about a special notice that the Defense Department issued Nov. 29.