WASHINGTON — The pivotal roles that advanced technology and data collection play on the battlefields of today and tomorrow raise a question of increasing importance: How, exactly, can one best get information to the fighters that need it, often under extreme pressure?
Answers and opinions abound. And not a single avenue, it seems, will satisfy every requirement.
Officials spearheading the U.S. Army’s development and deployment of upgraded network tech and tools are pursuing multiple layers, multiple functions and multiple bands, seeking a resilient network for relaying intel that can withstand the challenges of warfare.
Among the many potential solutions is 5G, a generation of wireless offerings that the Department of Defense is attempting to harness and dominate before international challengers can.
“As you start to look at some of the future demands for information, when you get in the future battlespace, 5G is going to have a tremendous opportunity and the ability to transport some of the information at much-quicker pace and at much-higher throughput,” Army Maj. Gen. Robert Collins said April 20 at the C4ISRNET Conference.
Collins is the program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical. In that role, he oversees the multibillion-dollar development, acquisition and fielding of the hardware and software the Army needs for a hardened, intuitive and mobile network.
Through upgrades rolled out every two years — what’s technically known as a capability set — Collins, his team and his colleagues are pushing military communications into the future. The integration of advanced cellular technology such as 5G, documents show, is expected with Capability Sets ‘25 and ‘27, each a few years down the road.
“I think, once again, that is another area where it’s going to be another layer of connectivity that we can afford and provide,” the general said April 20. “I think it’s going to have a lot of contributions.”
Pentagon officials describe 5G communications technology as foundational to all defense modernization programs and as vital to U.S. national and economic security. The military network, more broadly, has been described as the backbone of modernization, as well.
“The future? All about autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence,” Collins said during a demonstration at Fort Myer, Va., on April 26. “And it takes two things to do that: data and the network.”
In an October 2020 announcement, the Pentagon said it would focus on large-scale experimentation and prototyping of dual-use 5G, the sort of thing that would provide “high speeds and quicker response times, connect many more wireless devices than current wireless technology, and enable leap-ahead capabilities for the U.S. military.” It has since pursued testbeds at a dozen military installations, including sites in California, Georgia and Virginia, and unveiled a multimillion-dollar challenge to hasten the growth and adoption of an open, cooperative ecosystem.
The Defense Department’s 5G strategy, published in 2020, is written with a sense of urgency: The nations “that master advanced communications technologies and ubiquitous connectivity will have a long-term economic and military advantage,” its unclassified, public pages read. Those that don’t — or those hamstrung by the fifth generation’s pitfalls — will fall well behind.
Fifth-generation wireless technology promises exponentially faster speeds and the ability to accommodate more and more-advanced devices compared with its predecessors, like 4G. Deployment in the U.S. began in late 2018.
“There are three features that are especially important for the future. One is super-high speeds, and the second is low latency, and the third is a concept called ‘slicing,’” Martin Cooper, credited with inventing the cellphone during his time at Motorola, said April 27 during a discussion with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“We don’t need the super speed for watching movies and our normal interaction on the internet. But if you are running a machine where you want to know precisely where that machine is at every given instant, and have that machine react quickly, super-high speeds are important,” said Cooper, who stressed the technology should be used to better society and bridge the digital divide.
Both Collins and Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of the Army Network Cross-Functional Team, have begun looking into manned-unmanned teaming and robotics utilizing 5G. A great amount of opportunity, Collins said, exists there.
‘A great enabler’
When Rey took the helm at the Network Cross-Functional Team, he was quoted as saying: “The future is about data, and accessing and protecting it across transport-agnostic capabilities.” Jumping from “5G WiFi to terrestrial circuits,” he said, “to satellite-based systems as an automatic transition will give us greater operational flexibility across the board.”
On April 20, Rey again emphasized the value of 5G, especially considering its potential to keep troops safe and on the move.
“Dispersing the formation is going to be critical in the future. You can watch the ongoing operations, we’ll use that as an example,” the general said. “Dispersion of our forces will be important, and I think 5G plays a big role in that. Both terrestrial and at the space layer, I think is going to be key.”
Collins said that sort of advantage has already been observed when it comes to command posts.
“I think we’ve seen some benefit in the terrestrial aspects, certainly as you start to look at our command posts, as we start to distribute our command posts, and where you don’t necessarily have to have all primary elements of the staff physically colocated,” Collins said at the C4ISRNET Conference. “They can distribute out for force protection, and 5G offers a very low latent, high throughput type of capacity.”
The Navy’s chief digital innovation officer, Michael Galbraith, similarly sees 5G as making future operations and capabilities possible. From pier-side links to shipboard communications to logistical feats, there is a breadth of potential applications.
AT&T this year claimed initial success in setting up a 5G network experiment that could make smart warehouses a reality for the Navy, Defense News reported.
“We in the Navy, you know, we work at the edge, have been working at the edge since the 1700s,” Galbraith said April 19 at the Cloudera Government Forum. “In that information domain, there are other network capabilities, and 5G just is, again, a great enabler.”
Hurdles to clear
Embracing 5G is not without risks. The Government Accountability Office in a 2020 report said 5G could introduce new paths for cyberattacks, exacerbate existing privacy concerns and face broader implementation challenges and expensive infrastructure costs.
There have been boisterous debates about what tech can be trusted. Perhaps the most public has been about Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications and electronics Goliath former President Donald Trump and others considered a grave threat to national security.
There are hurdles in the field — or the canopy — as well.
“At the same token, 5G has sensitivities when it comes to foliage, blockage and other activities,” Collins said April 20.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology this year said scientists studied for months how obstacles including trees and shrubs would interfere with 5G.
“The tree study is one of the few out there that looks at the same tree’s effect on a particular signal frequency through different seasons,” Nada Golmie, head of NIST’s wireless networks division in the Communications Technology Laboratory, said in a statement. “We couldn’t only do the survey in the winter, because things would have changed by summer. It turns out that even the shape of leaves affects whether a signal will reflect or get through.”
Overcoming challenges will be critical to the adoption, proliferation and reliable use of the tech.
The Defense Department secured nearly $338 million for 5G and microelectronics in fiscal year 2022. It asked for $250 million in fiscal 2023, according to budget documents.
The department in March also established the 5G and Future-G Cross-Functional Team to lead the way on policy, guidance, research and development, and acquisition. The congressionally mandated outfit will work to ensure U.S. forces can operate anywhere, including where networks are contested and communication is difficult, an increasingly likely scenario given competition against complex rivals like Russia and China.
“Today’s operational requirements call for the acceleration of 5G technology with at-scale prototyping and experimentation,” Amanda Toman, the acting principal director of the Defense Department’s 5G to Future Generation Initiative, said in a statement. “The 5G and Future Generation CFT will play a critical role in advancing the department’s 5G and future-generation capabilities.”
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its NNSA — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.