WASHINGTON — Latvia is aiming to market itself as a hub for 5G military testing in Europe, with a successful technology test late last year leading to an expanded effort planned for 2021.

For several days last November, Ādaži Military Base, located outside of Riga, was temporarily turned into a 5G hub. The test involved doing medical training through virtual/augmented reality glasses, as well as training for military personnel via a VR headset, with the VR capability coming from Latvian companies.

The training happened with up to 12 miles (20 kilometers) distance between military units, Jānis Garisons, state secretary for the Latvian Ministry of Defence, told C4ISRNET. It also involved communicating with unmanned aerial vehicles at a distance.

From conception to execution took about three months, according to Ingmārs Pūķis, vice president for marketing and business development at LMT, Latvia’s largest telecommunications provider. The company set up the test bed and worked with the Ministry of Defence on the experiments.

The 5G network is based on Nokia Corp. technology, with Garisons stressing that Chinese firm Huawei Technologies Co., a major security concern for the U.S. military, was never an option considered, as a result of cybersecurity protocols passed by the government last summer requiring that all 5G components used in Latvia be produced in NATO or EU countries.

The two men declined to give a total cost for the effort, but indicated it was dramatically lower than the $600 million cost announced for five U.S. military test sites — unsurprising, given that Latvia’s annual defense budget is about 708 million euros ($830 million at current exchange rates).

The testbed was not the first 5G experiment for the Latvian government, which has mapped out a rough 5G plan for the country through 2024. Previous tests looked at whether a network handoff along the Latvian and Estonian border can be done smoothly and whether cell phones could be linked up to tactical radios to create a wider mesh network, which Pūķis called “somewhat crazy” because of its complexity.

But this was the first time a military base was used as a test site with an eye directly on 5G military capabilities, even if Pūķis described the initial round of tests as experimenting with the “low-hanging fruit” of 5G capabilities.

Garisons sees “three main directions” for 5G development in Latvia: situational awareness and early warning, communications network redundancy, and future technological developments.

Latvia is “a small country and we don’t have a lot of manpower,” Garisons said. “And through those technologies we can achieve, probably, some effects that probably otherwise we would not be able to achieve” against a stronger power.

While Garisons didn’t mention Russia by name, Atlantic Council fellow Ian Brzezinski said it makes “eminent sense” for Latvia to focus on technology like 5G as a counter to its larger neighbor.

“Technology can be a powerful a force multiplier — especially when that technology is ahead of that of the adversary,” Brzezinski said. “A country the size of Latvia bordering on Russia with the current government in Moscow needs that competitive edge.”

Future expansion

Both Latvians acknowledged they would be happy for their nation to become a key part of the NATO development of 5G systems, but discussions at this point are in the early stages.

Canada has forces stationed at Ādaži as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, and has expressed interest in looking further at what the Latvian government learned from the test, Garisons said. Additionally, Latvia presented its findings at a late 2020 meeting of NATO’s Communications and Information Agency.

“Latvia has offered their 5G facilities if we want to collaborate in the future,” NATO spokesperson Samantha Ehlinger confirmed to C4ISRNET, but added that the country is one of many NATO members exploring the technology.

“At this stage we are doing this work primarily for NATO’s Consultation, Command and Control (C3) Board Programme of Work, and Allied Command Transformation’s Innovation Programme of Work, but we are interested in collaborating further with Latvia to explore this topic,” Ehlinger said. “Several NATO Nations are exploring the potential to establish a combined effort on military applications of 5G, a multinational project facilitated by the Agency.

The alliance is organizing a 5G session at the upcoming International Conference on Military Communications and Information Systems (ICMCIS) in May, she added.

Garisons said that there have been initial conversations with the U.S. as well, and noted that Latvia — which, like the other Baltic nations, is always looking for an American military presence — could potentially host exercises not just around 5G but broader military training.

“I think the most interesting thing [would be] actually trying to link to networks on both sides of the Atlantic and actually trying to see: Can you can you actually operate them as one?” noted Pūķis. “Theoretically you maybe could have unit training in virtual reality, being geographically [in] different places. There are a zillion issues to be solved around this, but that would be a beautiful use case.”

“Taking a leadership role in the development and application of such technology is a great way to deepen engagement with key allies like the United States, Germany and others,” Brzezinski said. “5G is a really exciting realm, and Latvia is now leaning forward. What I’d love to see is a core group of NATO allies drive this forward — the U.S., U.K, Germany, Latvia and maybe Poland — you get a core of allies, and they start driving that onto the alliance agenda.”

Brzezinski added a suggestion that a key location, such as Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which hosts NATO’s Allied Air Command as well as American and German air force assets, should be home to a 5G bubble for further experimentation and training.

In the short term, Latvia will continue to further test 5G use for unmanned systems in the coming months. Longer term, the goal is to expand the 5G test site to a larger geographical area, although exactly what that will look like is still being worked out between the MoD and LMT. Pūķis is “hopeful” that will be set up and ready to go before the end of 2021.

“The sooner you do something practical and physical, the better — then you have experience you can build on,” Pūķis said. “Because sometimes when you make super cool, super expensive plans for many years, nothing happens for years and the world moves on. And those who do something faster usually win, rather than those who fantasize about it.”

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.