Insight by Nokia and Future Technologies

Why DoD needs 5G private networks for training

Private 5G networks allow DoD to replicate real-world environments for training, as well as enable new technologies. But it needs a foundation.

As the military continues to experiment with and adopt new technologies, it’s becoming increasingly important to ensure that soldiers are training the way they’ll be expected to operate, either in peacetime or in conflicts. But most military training bases are in remote areas that lack the kind of network coverage from public operators needed for things like augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR), and to conduct drones and connected warfighter trainings. That’s why it’s important for them to consider 5G private networks to get the high degree of connectivity and bandwidth needed to replicate real-world environments and meet the requirements of today’s mission.

“Creating high-bandwith connectivity across sprawling military bases is a challenge, “ said Steve Vogelsang, chief technology officer for Nokia Federal Solutions. “That’s where private wireless shines, ensuring the bandwidth and coverage required to enable seamless monitoring of training exercises and the advanced use cases being deployed.”

Before the advent of private cellular technologies, most military communications were handled through push-to-talk two-way radio systems. Those were excellent at voice communications, but today’s mission also requires text, high-speed data, and all the other features of modern communications that most people take for granted. Troops need to be able to use smart phones and tablets, cell modems, virtual private networks for encrypted communications and data, as well as transmit video for surveillance and monitoring purposes.

Security concerns

The modern battlefield also requires much higher security standards. In recent years, there have been a number of incidents where warfighters using everyday apps like FitBit, Facebook, TikTok and the beer rating app Untappd over public networks have inadvertently revealed training methods, locations and other data that could compromise operations or reveal classified information.

“So as long as there’s a way for data to get out to the internet, there’s a security concern,” said Robert Justice, chief technology officer for Future Technologies Ventures, LLC. “So by locking all that down and having no outbound internet access, we keep everything closely held. And it removes that ability to get into the public domain where an adversary may be able to inadvertently get that information.”

And the security concerns don’t end with operational security; keeping bad actors locked out is just as important as keeping sensitive data locked in. Warfighters need to learn how to defend against cyberattacks, which are increasingly being integrated into the arsenal of modern conflicts; that became especially apparent as the war in Ukraine unfolded. Warfighters training to defend against these cyberattacks aren’t yet prepared to fend off real-world attacks at the same time, and actual intrusions could muddy and confuse training exercises. In order to mitigate these risks and control the variables, it’s just as important to secure these training networks against inbound traffic as it is to secure outbound data.

Training scenarios

And that’s what these training exercises are all about: replicating real-world communications as closely as possible in a controlled environment.

“When you’ve got a brigade of 5000 troops coming in, part of what they have as a mission is to win the hearts and minds. So they need to be able to communicate with the local population in a realistic way,” Justice said. “So this cell phone network started out as a way to represent realistic communications that troops would see when they come into a theater of operations. So it gives them a way to communicate with all these personnel. It let the troops communicate with the politicians, with the law enforcement, things like that in their training scenarios.”

Since then, it’s evolved to include things like drone and other unmanned vehicle operations, and AR/VR tools to support long-distance training. The high bandwidth and lower latency of 5G networks make these technologies viable, assuming bases have the access to the spectrum they need.

Importance of spectrum

And that’s one of the biggest questions when it comes to laying the foundation for these private 5G networks at training bases, or really any base: What access to spectrum does the base already have, and what does it need to accomplish the mission? Voice communications, text, images and data require less throughput than things like AR/VR or unmanned vehicles, so they require access to different parts of the spectrum. But in recent years, the FCC has been selling off parts of the spectrum that the Defense Department  used to own to the private sector, with more such sales planned for the future. That means bases may have look into leasing agreements, or reconsider what bits of spectrum they plan to sell with regards to potential future needs.

“Having access to spectrum is critical to enable the bandwidth and performance required for private 5G network installations,” Vogelsang said. “The Defense Department has access to some 5G bands, but ultimately will need to find ways to partner with the mobile network operators to utilize their licensed spectrum and find ways to dynamically share spectrum for multiple uses.”

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