5G Network Technology Shaping Future Military Operations

Military strategies depend on reliable, quick and secure communications. The advent of 5G technology will enable remote and reliable connectivity, reduce latency, will be energy-efficient and have wide bandwidths

Special Feature Archive

By Maj Gen G Shankarnarayanan

Warfare today is characterised by heavy reliance on spectrum usage and high-speed computing capability that is governing the entire spectrum of military activity on and off the battle field. As the industry is gearing up for internet of things (IOT) so is the armed force whose essential criticality is the availability of adequate secure and reliable communication bandwidth and speed of connectivity. While this forms the functional necessity, denial of the same to the adversary becomes the key operational mandate for gaining tactical, operational and strategic advantage across the spectrum of warfare. Therefore, given this broad operational parameter, militaries world over are on the trajectory of net centricity, real-time situational awareness and precision standoff weapon delivery in an integrated battlefield environment. This is being made possible by advanced wireless technology and battlefield connectivity backed by high performance rapid computing capability based on an extendable, secure, and mobile battlefield smart communication grid.

Network centricity relies heavily on bandwidth that is fundamental to a smart communication grid. Since bandwidth facilitates communication capacity, it has become increasingly critical. To the user, high bandwidth is useful because it supports increased capacity, high volume data exchange, short delays, and high assurance of connectivity. This in turn speeds up decision making and mission critical executions. Therefore, the key focus of new and emerging technologies, commercial and military, is on increasing the existing bandwidth and hence the communications capacity available to users. Additionally, innovations in the cloud, internet of things, sensors, robotic and autonomous systems, analytics, artificial intelligence and deep learning are driving tactical network developers to consider deploying warfighting systems that are highly reliant on high-performance computing and storage. However, in the face of potentially degraded communications, these resources may only be effective if there is a pragmatic bandwidth spectrum management and bandwidth is treated as an operational resource to be allocated by Commanders and staff. On the contrary, next generation mobile communication (NGMN) technology is likely to revolutionise cellular communication that will effectively bridge the knowing-gap that currently exists.

5G Military Communication

Cellular Communications until now was mostly focused on human communications – connect people to people. But the next generation mobile networks (5G or Fifth Generation) are designed to connect more and more devices to each other. The vision of smart things, smart cities or smart military bases, requires realization of internet of things where every object will have inbuilt sensors and intelligence to sense and make decisions along with the ability to communicate to every other object in the vicinity, that too in real-time, resulting in a collaborative environment to meet certain objectives, and all this will happen without human intervention. 5G networks are seen as the essential infrastructure necessary to make this a reality. 5G will be able to support heterogeneous networks to serve both traditional voice, video and data services in addition to new services that will be enabled by the networked Device to Device (D2D) communication at ultra-low latency in an extremely dense environment (1000x more connected devices than in 4G networks) and with very high reliability.

The capability of 5G technologies to connect sensors with autonomous vehicles and machines with in-built sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms will mean faster, deadlier, less human interface in an operational environment

This vision of 5G technologies draws a similarity with the operational requirements of military communications of providing interoperable voice, video and data services across a global environment. The capability of 5G technologies to connect sensors with autonomous vehicles and machines with in-built sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms will mean faster, deadlier, less human interface in an operational environment. 5G will work on millimetre-wave band, with directional antenna and beam forming techniques. This is to counter large-signal attenuations encountered due to smaller wavelength and shared spectrum access enabled by directivity and low ranges that provides super high-speed full-duplex communications. These are some of the technologies that will become common among commercial and military communications. Further, since 5G communication will make the machine-to-machine communications possible without the need for satellites or communication relay, it will become a keystone of future military technology.

A brief analysis of generational upgradation in mobile communication technology suggests that 1G was analog, but a truly mobile first generation voice-centric network fielded in the 1980s. 2G was the first digital mobile communication network that was voice-centric with limited data capabilities launched in the early 1990s. 3G was the first wireless mobile data communication technology that enabled data streaming and mobile internet access, in 2003. 4G was the first all IP wireless data communication technology launched in 2008. The data communication feature enabled by packet switching and almost ubiquitous adaptation of IP protocols in 3G and 4G networks has led to the proliferation of a plethora of applications like streaming, eCommerce, social networks, gaming, etc. on mobile devices. As the generational change in mobile wireless technology, 5G is expected to be an enabler to a series of services with massive Machine Type Communication (MTC) like D2D (Device to Device) and Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) or Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications, that will minimize the boundary between the digital world and the physical world, thereby impacting every aspect of our lives. Experts have identified eight advanced distinguishing features/goals of 5G Systems, which include throughput ranging from 1Gbps up to 20Gbps; latency better than 1 msec; massive connectivity at super high speed; 1000s of interconnected devices; 1000x BW per unit area; 100% coverage with 99.999% availability; high energy efficiency – 90% reduction in energy and up to 10-year battery life for machine-type communications.

The applications of 5G can be broadly classified into three domains – enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Massive Machine-Type Communications (MTC) and Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Connections (URLLC). At least 10-fold increase in browsing speeds is the first and foremost requirements in the natural evolution of 4G/LTE to 5G. The target browsing speeds for eMBB platforms will be starting from 1 Gbps with download speed better than 200 Mbps. Interconnected everyday smart devices, vehicles and industrial equipment necessitates the development of massive MTC. The third instrumental application is URLLC for “mission-critical” applications in real-time data collation necessary for situational awareness and quick decision making.

Application of 5G in Military Communications

Further, since 5G communication will make the machine-to-machine communications possible without the need for satellites or communication relay, it will become a keystone of future military technology

Military strategies rely on secure, quick and reliable communications. The advent of 5G technology will enable remote and reliable connectivity, reduce latency, will be energy-efficient and will have wide bandwidths. 5G will also improve information sharing or situational awareness, with secure and reliable video sharing using a wide spectrum of optical devises ranging from fibre optic laser detectors, thermal cameras to LiDAR and body cams. This will significantly increase the real-time information input and location sharing. In addition, enhanced connectivity of inter operable sensors-based weapon platforms, robots, vehicles, and frontline troops in a net-centric battle field environment based on tactical communication system and battlefield management systems will reduce response time, thereby significantly reducing the OODA loop. It will also facilitate combat logistics enabling quick delivery of necessary supplies – ammunition, food, medicines etc – to precise locations through 5G connected Drones. 5G technologies coupled with medium altitude long endurance (MAHE) Drones will also enable better terrain mapping and data collection of depth areas for precise engagement. Based on IoT, Military communication devices will provide fast close-range communication using secure D2D communication without requiring satellites relays. However, the 5G components need to be suitably ruggedized, nuclear hardened, and packaged to be portable to facilitate flexibility in its deployment. From a technical stand point, a suitable mechanism in terms of enhanced processing or an improved cell architecture will be required to compensate for the higher losses of mm wave signals. A futuristic combat situation leveraging 5G technology along with IoT is reproduced below.

Combat Scenario – Machine-to-Machine Communication

A fictional representation of the potentials of 5G communication and the use of M2M in a combat situation can be visualised wherein an infantry section /a group of soldiers are engaged in a skirmish, all with smart wearables that directly communicate with each other (machine-to-machine communication). The wearables will be monitoring various body parameters in real-time and any attack on the soldier is immediately detected by them. The wearable device alerts the commanders in chain while simultaneously attending to the immediate lifesaving actions necessary. Guided by location tracking devices on the wearables, suitable counter measures are taken by the commander, including dispatch of additional reinforcement if necessary. In so far as the individual is concerned, the wounded portion is protected by automatic tightening of the belt and maybe an injection of first aid while simultaneously alerting the nearest emergency aid centre and the group members to initiate casualty evacuation of the injured soldier.

Battlespace Scenarios – Application and Application 

5G is expected to be an enabler to a series of services with massive Machine Type Communication (MTC) like D2D (Device to Device) and Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) or Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) communications, that will minimize the boundary between the digital world and the physical world, thereby impacting every aspect of our lives

It is presumed that hypersonic weapons, being built by USA, Russia, China and others will be ready by 2025. Given their super high speed (15-20 times the speed of sound), intercepting or guiding them is beyond the scope of current generation networks. 5G networks, as envisaged at present, will have both the required bandwidth (BW) and minimal latency. Moreover, these hyper glided vehicles (HGV) will be flying at a much lower altitude to avoid being detected by air defence systems and hence this lower altitude might be within the low range capacity of mm waves of 5G networks, albeit with a slew of interconnected relays. With the lower latency and reachability enabled by a network of relays, 5G has the potential to provide real-time connectivity to these hypersonic weapons from ground stations as well as to detect them by air defence systems. A few science fiction scenarios that have been presented wherein an aircraft carrier is simultaneously attacked by a missile as well as a torpedo with the aid of on-board sensors, networked together and providing real-time situational awareness to the captain. Based on this input, a cloud of drones and swarms of autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are launched by the captain. Drones form a barrier that deflects the incoming missile into the sea while UUVs form barriers to intercept and destroy the inbound torpedo. Immediate close air, combat drone, artillery or loiter ammunition support to troops on ground will be provided by real-time situational awareness that activate the best fit weapon platform for the quickest response to achieve the desired results by commanders. In fact, the pace of operations in a multi spectral warfare will be enhanced significantly owing to enhancement in speed of communications.

Secure Military Communication for Command and Control, Perimeter Security, Telemedicine and Much More

5G will leverage millimetre wave spectrum where signal attenuates very fast, thereby reducing the range significantly compared to 4G spectrum of sub-GHz. This property can be leveraged in two particular use cases for military installations. A large number of sensors can be deployed across the perimeter due to large BW available and Ultra-low latency to provide perimeter security without the threat of enemies detecting the sensor communications. Similarly, the use of a directional antenna and low ranges with high BW and low latency makes 5G an ideal technology for communication among various command posts of a formation, without the threat of detection, jamming, eavesdropping etc. The mm-wave signals are prone to attenuation by buildings, foliage, moving objects etc. Therefore, 5G technology will leverage directional antenna with beam-forming, which will inherently provide anti-jamming properties. These properties can be leveraged in designing multiple layers of spectrum for different networks with no additional hardware. 5G technology also has the potential of making the concept of smart bases a reality. Similarly, the real-time exchange of situational awareness data vis a vis available resources (manpower, weapons and ammunition, ration, etc.) with a formation or unit will definitely result in optimal deployment and distribution of resources, thereby optimising it in a theatre of operation. Another critical application of 5G will be robotic surgery in a remote battlefield providing prompt and best medical care.

Developmental Status of 5G

At present the development of 5G networks is work under progress, hence experimental data is not available in the open literature to validate the claims of its effectiveness in commercial and/or military domain. Notwithstanding this, the fact that 5G networks will be a leap forward in mobile communications with increased bandwidth, cannot be overlooked. This increased speed of data transfers will enable a host of military applications. Whereas the day to day life will be hugely impacted, in a positive manner, by a host of connected devices with on-board sensors, actuators and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, enabling autonomous operations and increasing efficiency in terms of management of resources and speedy delivery of services. In the military domain, the availability of 5G networks will exponentially improve the situational awareness by transmission of large amount of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data in real-time to commanders. This will not only provide an edge in the tactical environment during a conflict, but it would also improvise logistics and resource management during peacetime. Autonomous vehicles, smart cities /military bases, high BW, low latency applications enabling cloud-based services both for commercial as well C2 (command and control) environment are some of the overlapping usages of 5G networks. However, the large number of connected devices and the network virtualization techniques for core infrastructure will definitely increase the potential attack surface. Increased dependencies on these networks have already made them part of critical infrastructure and any operational glitch (due to a bug or malware) will have a catastrophic effect.

Edge Computing

The advent of 5G will also facilitate combat logistics enabling quick delivery of necessary supplies – ammunition, food, medicines, etc. – to precise locations through 5G-connected Drones. 5G technologies coupled with…Drones will also enable better terrain mapping and data collection of depth areas for precise engagement

Innovations in the internet of things, sensors, analytics and artificial intelligence promise entirely new warfighting capabilities that serve as force multipliers. The next big issue is that of storage and retrieval of such large volume of data. Edge computing and advances in cloud capacity, high-performance computing and storage are key enablers for these systems-driving tactical networks to deploy warfighting systems that rely heavily on high-performance computing and storage. However, it also entails analytics and handling of very large volumes of digital data. In the event of degraded long-distance communications caused by cyber and electronic warfare attacks, these computers and storage resources may only be available if it is deployed at the tactical network’s edge. This implies deploying cloudlike services at the tactical edge of the network, so that data is available at the edge even when WAN connectivity is unavailable or neutralised. At the same time, the internet of battlefield things (IoBT) is raising the stakes significantly when it comes to handling the volume and complexity of devices and sensors in tactical environments. From wearables on the troops themselves to connected tanks, helicopters and drones, interconnectivity through the internet of things is a necessity and has to be secure, trusted and available. Edge computing is therefore the answer but cannot be vendor specific due to its innate security issues. Hence armed forces have to rely on indigenous country specific cloud computing capability. In the Indian context, the defence communication network (DNC) must explore possibility of a home-grown cloud. An extension of cloud computing will be a new class of modular, tactical data centres capable of hosting cloud storage, artificial intelligence and analytics applications capable of being deployed dismounted, at forward operating bases, in command posts, on armoured vehicles and aircrafts.

While the need for increased bandwidth to enhance spectral efficiency cannot be over emphasised, the wait for superior technology, including 5G, has to be ideally compensated by the best use of the available spectrum. Gaps between the supply and demand of capacity, both now and in the future, will have to be addressed by constantly reassessing demand for capacity. It is important to note that bandwidth is not the only issue with regard to networked communication. Among the other critical issues are communications-on-the-move and interoperability. This calls for a fully dynamic spectrum management that could facilitate even greater use of the spectrum. New technologies will greatly increase capacity, but unchecked user demands will probably keep pace and exceed available capacities. The challenge is to meet the right users’ needs at the right time. Since bandwidth is a limited resource, it needs to be managed and treated as an operational resource. It is therefore inextricably clear that the deployment of 5G networks in the military domain is a foregone conclusion. It is also absolutely essential to work out network designs with adequate security mechanisms built in at each layer to make it robust enough to prevent an attack and also resilient enough to survive/recuperate from a successful attack. In addition, due care must be given to critical communications infrastructures that need to be developed simultaneously to ensure seamless network integration and operations.

–The writer is a former GOC-Indian Army and presently a Strategic Consultant, Principal Advisor. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda