The Pentagon is all in on 5G and future G as it works to strengthen its communications posture across the department and help its warfighters.
Going forward, the Defense Department will focus on several things including cybersecurity, cloud security, privacy, logistics and signature management as it transitions to use more and more 5G communication technology across the department. It is also focusing on 5G interoperability.
“A key tenet here is privacy-enhancing technologies and additional security technologies in order to start breaking down those challenges that this technology will always have for us,” Thomas Rondeau, DoD’s principal director for future G, said at an Atlantic Council event this week.
Rondeau said that DoD needs to look at what information is coming from the edge or from user devices. These devices collect personal information and present a signature over the air and in the network. However, this could present an issue when trying to hide. As a result, he said the department should be aware what that signature is. DoD is looking at technology to help it know what its signatures are and how they appear. Additionally, DoD is investing in technology that will enable it to have more observability and feedback within the network to help warfighters make the right decisions.
“Most commercial technologies are designed to make the receivers that the end users are going to have as cheap as possible,” Rondeau said. “So therefore, they broadcast really high amounts of energy in order to make sure that they’re discoverable. You turn your phone on from airplane mode and the first thing it does is scream, ‘hello, somebody come find me.’ And of course, that’s the last thing that you want to do in that time of conflict when you’re in that weapons engagement zone. When you’re in that really contested environment, we’re going to have to understand different hybrid approaches to the technology we’re building for very specific environments.”
He said that a benefit of 5G and future G technology is the use of more electromagnetic spectrum. Specifically, 5G introduced the use of millimeter wave in the tens of gigahertz. Future G technologies are expected to use frequencies between7GHz and 24GHz.
“You have this huge opportunity [to] take advantage of the physics of those different pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum,” Rondeau said. “And because of the software definability of the systems, now we can start doing things within the spec, now we start programming slightly outside the spec, there’s plenty of really interesting options that this technology gives us to make that maneuverability happen … we are working closely with our industry base to define new technologies that will help us enhance our low probability of detection, interception, our anti jam capabilities within standard, compliant 5G systems.”
Like any platform, 5G must be secured. However, DoD will likely need enhanced security.
“I think you’re going to see the U.S. government needing to add to what that commercial infrastructure is able to do,” Dan Rice, vice president of military 5G programs at Lockheed Martin, said. “But in terms of the evolution of how cybersecurity has happened in the commercial world, whether it’s with cloud or other computing infrastructures, you’re seeing that same thing happen in the telecommunications industry. So, we can take advantage of that as a starting point to layer on those additional capabilities that we’re going to need for the most sensitive defense applications.”
While the 5G environment can differ across the services, the benefit of 5G is that it can be tuned to meet the different services’ needs. DoD is trying to figure out how it can utilize or repurpose this technology to fit different application needs. For example, how can it apply what it’s learned studying 5G out at sea to how 5G will behave when used for airborne capabilities? The department is looking to just tweak systems instead of needing to replicate an entire system for a different scenario.
Logistics is also a big piece of 5G, and finding ways to transition from experiments to actual use of the technology is the next hurdle for DoD. However, this will take a while to scale and it will be important to train personnel how to use 5G devices.
Rondeau said DoD is working on logistics, which is important for its “ability to fight wars and to keep peace.”
He added that DoD has been working on smart warehouses as a piece of logistics.
“When you think about logistics, it’s not just about the network that connects how you move items from one place to another, but it’s knowing where your items are, what weapons we have available and how to get them to where they need to be,” Rondeau said.
Rondeau added that DoD must leverage the industrial base, which invests approximately $100 billion per year, compared to the $650 million the Defense Department spent on base pilot program over the past three years. Meanwhile, DoD has enabled Open Radio Access Network (O-RAN) to advance its investments more quickly and helped to remove risk. In addition to O-RAN, DoD helps to drive various 5G standards that industry may not have adopted first, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications or mesh networks of end user devices.
5G is also critical to accomplish the goals of the department, including Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, according to Whitney McNamara, a Forward Defense nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“5G is one of those really critical enablers where if the department is not able to really adopt it at scale, it’s going to be really difficult for it to realize its ambitions towards this more disaggregated and distributed force structure that it’s aiming towards, that’s heavily augmented by autonomous systems,” McNamara said. “We see that reflected in JADC2, we see that reflected in how Replicator has been explained. And then in these force structures, decision making sort of gets pushed down right to the tactical edge.”
While 5G has not yet reached its potential, it will offer lots of benefits once there. Although DoD does not want to lose sight of 5G, it is also focusing on future G and not falling behind emerging communication technologies.
“There’s certainly a future G as far as I can fathom,” Rondeau said. “This is a moving sidewalk. The telecommunications industry is a moving sidewalk; you’re on it, or you’re not. And so it’s been moving since the 70s to produce the technologies that are now being called 5G. Roughly every 10 years they’re coming out with another generation of technologies.”
Kirsten Errick covers the Defense Department for Federal News Network. She previously reported on federal technology for Nextgov on topics ranging from space to the federal tech workforce. She has a Master’s in Journalism from Georgetown University and a B.A. in Communication from Villanova University.