5G will revolutionize tactical communications

The benefits are potentially enormous, especially for low and middle radio frequency bands


As the one of the important next-generation wireless standards, 5G has the potential to revolutionize tactical communications.

But this will require experimentation and the cooperation of government and industry, according to experts.

“It’s going to take everybody integrating these solutions as part of an overall ecosystem, creating interoperability standards, and making common data plans so that it’s an enhancement and not an encumbrance to these [tactical] operations,” Russell Glenn, a senior cyber solutions engineer at Viasat.

But the benefits are potentially enormous, especially for low and middle radio frequency bands, including faster data rates, higher capacity, fast connections from base stations to users, higher density of devices/users, stronger security, the ability to extend connectivity to remote locations, using lower band frequencies, and network slicing that allows multiple networks to be created atop a common physical information transport infrastructure.

For the commercial sector and the consumer market, those are powerful inducements. For the U.S. military, they are crucial to developing capabilities such as the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative, which seeks to create a tight communications chain that delivers long-range precision capabilities in minutes rather than hours.

5G creates the “situational awareness and visibility across the board where you need to see yourself, see your enemy, and see your targets,” said Glenn. “5G can enable you to bring in even more situational awareness, position, location, and information at the edge to create that true common operating picture.” The rapid transport of information and data across domains is critical to advancing JADC2. 5G bandwidth and including over satellite networks, can enhance C2 operations and increase situational awareness for the warfighter.

Glenn pointed to numerous use cases for 5G:

  • Agile command posts for mobile operations
  • Integrated rapid, long-range fires
  • Sustainment-on-the-move to keep supplies flowing to where they are needed
  • Enhanced throughput capacity to allow transmission of high-resolution 4K imagery
  • Better datalinks to operate unmanned vehicles and to facilitate manned/unmanned teaming
  • Ultra-low-latency communications for virtual reality training, mission operations and telemedicine

“Those are things that can absolutely be optimized without the need for custom tactical radio environments,” Glenn said.

This creates a field that is particularly promising for smaller, agile companies that can quickly develop solutions for the government. “It’s going to require, in many cases, that commercial solutions come first,” said Dr. Anton Monk, vice president and chief technology officer for Viasat Wireless Initiatives.

Work in progress

Viasat and other companies are already working hard to bring 5G to military customers. For example, Viasat was awarded three Department of Defense Information Warfare Research Project (IWRP) contracts last year that focus on 5G. The company will provide C2 hardware packages that support integration of 5G with existing C4ISR, networking, and cybersecurity capabilities. It will also study how to deploy secure 5G nodes at the tactical edge, including optimum network routing and minimizing the probability of network detection by the enemy.

As with any promising new technology, making 5G work for tactical communications will take time and effort. For example, DOD customized hardware and software will need to be designed and built, which is especially challenging amid supply chain shortages.

“You cannot go to typical companies or even components that have been available in the past for commercial applications, due to various foreign supply constraints,” Monk said. “And then we’ve got to talk about features such as 5G standalone versus non-standalone architecture. DOD often is asking for standalone millimeter-wave. Both the RAN (radio access networks) and CPEs (customer premises equipment) really do not exist for standalone millimeter-wave 5G at this point. This is partly because chipsets are still in development, but also because the mobile operators are not pushing for these requirements as they focus their efforts on more economical low and mid-band spectrum for 5G applications.”

Today, 5G is offered by major wireless providers in some part of the U.S., particularly for low and mid-band spectrum. But what about U.S. forces operating overseas, without the benefit of that vast commercial wireless infrastructure that American consumers expect?

“These are not trained field-service reps or 5G engineers that are out there at the edge,” Monk said. “These are soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines that are operating these systems with basic communications training. They need to have user interfaces that are intuitive and optimized to ease operations for their particular environment.”

The Department of Defense will also have to address the question of spectrum allocation — especially given 5G’s C-band requirements — to avoid conflict with military radars and other RF devices. And military 5G must also reckon with the inevitable threat of disruption by cyberattack and electronic warfare. “It has to be censored, secured, monitored and resilient to be able to operate around and through those challenged environments,” Monk said.

One of the biggest questions is how to make 5G compatible with existing tactical communications.

“You’re not going to change the interoperability specs of things that have been around for 20-plus years, such as Link 16, to be suddenly 5G interoperable,” Glenn said. “How do you integrate those 5G information transports in a way that augments and enhances those existing systems, versus creating what they call ‘swivel chair data exchanges,’ where you’ve got one guy that has to take it [data] off of one network and physically pass it to another?”

Monk expects multiple networks operating together will be a promising solution, including geostationary orbit (GEO) networks, and low-Earth orbit (LEO) systems, high altitude platform systems (HAPS) in the stratosphere, and terrestrial systems.

“The evolution of network interoperability between these forms of information transport is going to require a combination of data links software defined-wide area networks, or SD-WANs, as well as 5G networking,” he said.

Ultimately, 5G has the potential to vastly improve the ability of the U.S. military to exert command and control, locate targets for rapid long-range fires, and robust and secure communications. 5G is only one part of the communications mosaic.

“5G is not a panacea,” Monk said. “I’m not sure anybody thinks it really is, but sometimes it’s talked about that way. It’s one tool in what you can call the transport layer toolbox. Experimentation continues to be crucial.”