Five Alive

US Air Force Mobile 5G Test Station
The US military is examining the potential of 5G to enhance deployed communications. While 5G does bring clear benefits, it should not be considered risk free.

5G networks may have important contributions to make in enhancing tactical communications but they are not without accompanying risks.

It may have passed you by, but in January the European Defence Fund (EDF) launched a new project called 5G COMPAD (5G Communications for Peacekeeping and Defence). The EDF is an annual disbursement by the European Union (EU) to foster research, development and innovation in Europe’s defence sector. 5G COMPAD “will demonstrate the relevance of 5G (fifth-generation) mobile communications technology in support of sustained information superiority” according to the project’s documentation. The project’s deliverables include the design, prototyping and testing of a “reference architecture for a 5G-based robust and resilient multi-dimensional communications system to demonstrate (the) operation capabilities” of 5G technologies in defence applications. A raft of European companies and research institutes are involved in 5G COMPAD.

Just what is 5G?

Put simply, 5G is a catch-all term for a new set of cellular telecommunications protocols being introduced globally. These new protocols use low- and mid-band, and Millimetre Wave (MMW), segments of the radio spectrum. 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 while MMW inhabits 24GHz up to 72GHz. 5G promises significant increases in data rates compared to current 4G protocols which 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 support circa 4,000 devices per square kilometre (0.38 square miles). This increases to circa one million when using 5G MMW frequencies.

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. Such networking allows these objects 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, base and military capability, henceforth known as assets. The IOMT will enable continuous exchanges of data including everything from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to health and usage monitoring information. Data will be uploaded to cloud computing applications where it will be stored and accessed.

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 is the materiel aspiration of the US DOD’s Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) philosophy. MDO fosters the full connectivity of all military assets at all levels, and across all domains, of war. The aim of MDO is to facilitate better and faster decision-making vis-à-vis one’s adversary. To this end, it is instructive that 5G will be one of the technologies underpinning the US Army’s Integrated Tactical Network (ITN).


Michael Rowe, vice president of Frost & Sullivan’s advisory business and global practice leader for aerospace, space and defence argues that 5G potentially provides “a single architecture capable of offering ‘broadband speed’ connectivity across forces.” This is particularly important given the DOD’s multi-domain operations doctrine discussed above. Mr. Rowe continues that 5G will be an invaluable technology for connectivity-intense and dependent assets like uninhabited systems.

Dr. Raymond Shen, director of 5G/6G government solutions at Keysight Technologies sees other applications where 5G could have relevance. The IOMT depends on connectivity. Military assets need networking and Dr. Shen sees 5G as a useful way to connect these assets to one another. 5G networks provide low latency while handling both low and high data rates. He believes that 5G could be beneficial in assisting augmented reality technologies and telemedicine, in addition to its potential for uninhabited vehicle connectivity.


Is 5G technology a panacea for military tactical communications or a niche application? Mr. Rowe emphasises that 5G has risks. Like all cellular communications protocols 5G depends on line-of-sight communications. As anyone who has tried to use their cellphone in the countryside can attest, if there is not a cellphone mast in range of your phone, connections become difficult. Armies may need to physically deploy 5G infrastructure into theatre if local networks cannot be relied upon or are unavailable. Deploying 5G infrastructure can translate into “more masts that need protecting on the ground.” One way around this challenge, argues Dr. Shen, will be to host 5G services on satellite networks. Low earth orbit satellite communications networks like SpaceX’s Starlink have potential. Satellite-hosted 5G networks may provide alternatives to terrestrial 5G infrastructure which risks being “non-existent, downed or denied.” However, whether an army is deploying a 5G network on the ground, or accessing one in space, both potentially have significant financial costs.

A further issue is whether enough spectrum is available in theatre for deployed 5G to serve its full potential? Despite the 5G bandwidths mentioned above will these always be available in their entirety? Are these bandwidths hosting other users, limiting how much spectrum is available for a deployed 5G system? “Oftentimes there are trade-offs,” says Dr. Shen, “and no easy solutions since spectrum is so widely used and available spectrum is scarce.” From a military perspective, appropriating a local 5G network, but then saturating it with traffic could restrict 5G bandwidth to local civilian users. From a ‘hearts and minds’ perspective, denying local users’ bandwidth could be detrimental.

Other risks cited by Dr. Shen include 5G services being at risk from cyberattack as “malware could potential be introduced to data networks.” Cybersecurity can be used to mitigate risks but may not be able to eliminate them. Several organisations are developing the technical standards for 5G. These organisations have “working groups to increase security, and academia performs a plethora of security research” says Dr. Shen. He adds that the private sector is playing an important role in testing and monitoring 5G networks “to prevent or detect security breaches.”

5G networks are also at risk of jamming, argues Dr. Shen. Russian land forces electronic warfare assets include several capabilities targeting the frequencies used by 5G networks.  Furthermore, “5G is poor at penetrating physical objects like walls,” says Mr. Rowe. This could have an impact for the technology’s utility in urban warfare, for example. Ultimately, Mr. Rowe does not see a mass uptake of 5G by militaries for tactical communications. Nonetheless, initiatives like 5G COMPAD and ITN show that 5G has a role to play in tactical communications, provided stakeholders are aware of the accompanying risks.

by Dr. Thomas Withington