WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of the Air Force considers 5G a promising avenue for communication — but far from the only one — on future battlefields, amid a Pentagon-wide push to keep forces connected across vast distances.

While some consider the fifth generation of wireless technologies as extraordinary, Jay Bonci, the department’s chief technology officer, sees it as an additional means of connectivity, or another arrow in the quiver of military networking.

“It’s a bandwidth provider. It’s got some interesting technologies, in future tranches, that we’re looking at for military utility,” Bonci said Dec. 14 during a livestreamed C4ISRNET event. “But our standing position is it is a part of ‘connect,’ the same way fiber works, same way Wi-Fi works. And we’ll continue to think about it in those regards.”

The Pentagon has invested billions in 5G — with its 2020 strategy recognizing it as “far more disruptive” than its predecessors, such as 4G — and in recent years established test beds at a dozen military installations. Bonci described the Defense Department as having “special emphasis” on 5G, adding that the Air and Space forces are “answering the mail on that.”

5G pledges exponentially faster speeds as well as capacity to accommodate more and more-advanced devices, which can pay dividends for defense, health care, logistics and more. But 5G that lives up to the hype has yet to arrive for many; the sluggish rollout is often blamed on squabbles between industry and lawmakers over the designation of space on public airwaves.

“We are here at kind of the early days of 5G,” Bonci said. “Everyone recognizes the potential of a more-connected military to be able to do great things and we’re, again, working through these elements.”

Defense companies are tinkering, too.

Lockheed Martin, the No. 1 defense contractor ranked by revenue, according to Defense News analysis, and Verizon in September said they were able to securely share and analyze real-time intelligence captured by a swarm of drones via 5G wireless networks, both private and public.

Viasat in June announced it would, over four years, explore how 5G networking and related gear can support Marine Corps operations abroad, including needs for long-range precision fires, refueling, rearming, surveillance and reconnaissance.

And General Dynamics Information Technology, Amazon Web Services, Cisco, Dell Technologies, Splunk and T-Mobile have formed a 5G coalition to accelerate adoption across several sectors, the military among them. The efforts of the GDIT 5G and Edge Accelerator Coalition stem from the Advanced Wireless Emerge Lab, where work is already underway to identify the best 5G applications and how kit can be cost-effectively implemented across federal, state and local agencies.

“To that end, our industry partners, the AT&Ts, Verizons, T-Mobiles of the world, as well as the private infrastructure providers for private 5G networks, have been really great at being at the table to help us get this right together,” said Bonci, who previously worked at Akamai Technologies, a digital security and computing company.

The Pentagon secured some $338 million for 5G and microelectronics in fiscal 2022. It sought $250 million for 2023. Congressional leaders this week unveiled a $1.7 trillion government spending package, which includes $858 billion for defense.

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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