Famous Five

Military 5G
The US Army is embracing 5G cellular connectivity as part of its contribution to the US Department of Defence’s overall Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative.

“5G will provide a transport layer that we’ll have to address in the Electronic Warfare (EW) community,” observed Colonel Kevin Finch. Col. Finch is the deputy director of the US Department of Defence’s DISA  (Defence Information Systems Agency). He was speaking at Executive Biz’ 2023 Electronic Warfare Forum on 19th January 2023.

Fifth-generation (5G) cellular communications standards are being introduced globally. These new protocols use low- and mid-band, and Millimetre Wave (MMW) segments of the radio spectrum. The low-band frequencies are akin to those used by 4G, typically 400 megahertz/MHz to 3.4 gigahertz/GHz. Mid-band encompasses frequencies of 2.4GHz to 4.2GHz and while MMW inhabits 24GHz up to 72GHz. 5G promises significant increases in data rates compared to current 4G protocols. These could reach 20 gigabits-per-second. Latency could fall from circa 20 to 30 milliseconds for 4G, to under ten milliseconds for 5G. More subscribers can be hosted on a single 5G node than on its existing 4G equivalent. Current 4G cellular protocols can support circa 4,000 devices per square kilometre (0.38 square miles). This increases to circa one million when using the MMW frequencies 5G offers.

Internet of Military Things

These new protocols are integral to the forthcoming Internet of Things (IOT). Oracle describes the IOT as a network of physical objects embedded with sensors, software and technologies. This allows them to exchange data with other devices and systems over the internet. The defence world is embracing this technology via the Internet of Military Things (IOMT). The IOMT follows a similar methodology to the IOT. It emphasises the connection of every platform, sensor, weapons system, warfighter and base. This will enable continuous exchanges of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, plus health and usage monitoring information with cloud computing applications where this information will be stored. The rationale behind the IOMT is to improve the quality and pace of decision-making and action at strategic, operational and tactical levels. Militarised 5G forms a key part of the US Department of Defence’s (DOD) Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) architecture. JADC2 is being implemented across the DOD and US armed forces to network all warfighting assets to each other.

The DOD is not alone in exploiting 5G technology, her rivals are taking a similar interest. As the 2022 US DOD’s Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China noted, that country has poured significant investment into 5G.  Ostensibly this is for civilian purposes, particularly commerce. Nonetheless, such technology could easily be used by the military. As Armada reported in February, the People’s Liberation Army is moving ahead with a JADC2-style system. This will almost certainly include 5G connectivity.

Finding the Signal

5G holds two electronic warfare challenges. The first is that Signals of Interest (SOI) could use a morass of 5G users as camouflage. Imagine the challenge of trying to find one or two 5G SOIs in a megacity of over ten million people, all of whom maybe on 5G networks. Secondly, EW practitioners will need to discriminate military and civilian 5G networks on and around the battlefield. The latter will need to be left largely undisturbed, if possible, from a ‘hearts and mind’ perspective. The former will need to be exploited for intelligence, and disrupted and degraded as and when necessary.

“Go back 20 years and look how the electromagnetic spectrum was used in your home,” Col. Finch told delegates. “Fast forward to today and you have a proliferation of Wi-Fi and scores of networks and cellphones.” He warned that “we are now trying to find needles in a haystack in a heavily-congested electromagnetic spectrum.”

Col. Finch suggested several ways to address the 5G EW challenge: “We need to be joined at the hip with the intelligence community … SOIs as they appear will need to be quickly handed off to the EW community.” He also suggested that “computing at the edge will be hugely important. Areas will be so congested we can only send interesting items back to get analysed at the higher level.” Meanwhile, it is likely adversaries will be targeting friendly communications with conventional jamming and cyberattacks: “We may have limited bandwidth and be restricted on what we can share.” Ultimately, the 5G challenge is going to evolve and “we are going to have to chase an ever-smarter mouse.”

Deployable 5G Node
In 2022 Saab unveiled its deployable, ruggedised 5G communications system. Plans are now afoot by several militaries around the world to adopt fifth-generation cellular protocols as integral parts of their communications.

by Dr. Thomas Withington

Read our other Electronic Warfare articles from the newsletter:

Sign up to our Electronic Warfare Newsletter: