Making 5G Military Ready, With Lessons from Ongoing Global Experiments

The Indian initiative appears to be promising. The end-result in the backdrop of economic aspects and international 5G race will pose many financial and technology risks on Indian 5G ISPs. The government must support Indian Civil and Military 5G in a big way to make it an international success

Special Feature

By Maj Gen Lav Bikram Chand

5g

The Dawn of 5G was accompanied with enormous excitement amongst all stakeholders, both civil and military. It is being seen as a magic wand, just a flick of which will resolve all ICT related issues. To a large extent this ambition is well placed. But it is not as if the communicators will pull a rabbit (5G) out of their hat. It is still a ‘work in progress’ and ‘site under construction’ to make them viable for military use.

Since 2010, Chinese Telecom equipment maker Huawei has had a commercial partnership (worth £2 billion) with British Telecom (BT). The UK Government Communication HQ (GCHQ) and Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) carried out a detailed vulnerability assessment of all Huawei equipment deployed by BT. Despite these checks, Huawei has been taken out of BT Core NWs and 5G due to security reasons and poor vulnerability management. From a global perspective, 5G is seeing fierce competition in the ‘Post-West Era’. China’s Huawei and ZTE, despite their unmatched price advantage, have become untrustworthy partners in the roll out of 5G in most of the western countries. India, too, has decided not to deploy Huawei 5G infrastructure. It remains to be seen whether the government will succumb to the anticipated intense pressure from China and the Indian industry!

Schiebel

The 5G technology has an extremely complex infosphere that is IP-based; it has software intensive network functionalities, including digital routing; it interconnects mostly devices rather than people and, above all, it has its security foundation built on “Zero-trust”.

It has features like Network Slicing, virtualisation of NW functions, mandatory AI based NW management functions, Software Defined Network (SDN), virtualisation of application planes and above all Internet of Things (IoT). IoT basically interconnects devices that are traditionally dumb to security related protocols, and makes it mandatory to “insert Security in Development and Operational Cycles”.

The MoD needs to invest more in military 5G. With the experience of the past success stories of military networks, Indian Military 5G for use at tactical level must be under a High Technology Team steered by the Defence Secretary

5G has inherent complexity at hardware as well as software planes. Increasing the IoT subscriber base of millions of devices in a small geographical area – that are in turn interconnected worldwide – makes them vulnerable to hacking. In 5G, cyber attacks are no longer confined to just Denial of Service and Data stealing. New forms of attacks like Device Identity Stealing and their Hijacking and ‘Battery Drain Attacks’ (device consumes >10x power) pose far greater threats than Denial of Service. Going by the experience of Android OS in mobile phones, as the 5G user base increases, the vulnerabilities will increase exponentially. A cyber attacker’s policy in the virtualisation ecosystem is: “Why deny when you can gain more by hijacking and impersonation?”

The silver lining for military usage is that ab initio 5G was designed and developed as a dual-purpose technology. Customisation for military use, in an environment of economic competition between ISPs, poses new challenges. ISPs, in their race to capture subscriber base, will (is) result (ing) in postponement of resolving minor security issues and patch management after rollout. This laxity is not an option for military use. So the US Department of Defense (DoD), in partnership with leading telecom companies, has launched multiple testbeds in their homeland to customise and test 5G for military use. The testbed is funded by DoD (over $600 million) with a time frame of 5 years (2025).

For India, it is wise to base its roadmap on the approach adopted by world leaders in telecom technology. The salient points of the US DoD approach in “Testing of Dual Use of 5G and its Adoption for Military Use” are:

  • Testbed is being carried out in 2 tranches. 1st tranche contracts have been awarded to ISP/ TSPs like AT&T, Ericsson, Nokia, GBL, Deloitte Consulting LLP, General Dynamics Research Systems, GE Research, KPMG, etc.
  • The 1st tranche scope is to establish 5 testbeds to test 1) Enable Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality based training, 2) Smart warehousing capability in Naval Base San Diego 3) Georgia has similar scope as that of San Diego but focus on Marine Corps Vehicles 4) Nellis AFB would focus on tactical command and control services and 5) Sharing of Spectrum and related issues.
  • The 2nd tranche adds seven more facilities for 5G testing.

The 1st tranche commenced in November 2019 with the issue of its RFP. Warehousing facility was successfully demonstrated in June this year. The cost of this was $90 million (₹650 crores).

Indian Initiative: There is no dispute regarding why adoption of 5G technology by Indian Armed Forces is necessary. But the pertinent questions are: By when, to what extent, and how? The vision of the Indian Military to modernise and be able to win in the digital battlefield is well articulated. But it mandates that it adopts IoMT and AI in all military operations and domains. It can be seen from the Request for Information, issued early this year, that the Indian Army is test-bedding 5G at MCTE, Mhow, and simultaneously validating IoMT based upon LTE. One can safely assume that IoMT will be tested on 5G too.

This is a great initiative, but considering the budget allocation, MCTE would be compelled to confine the testbed to commercial flavour of 5G and not militarised 5G. The Indian Defence Secretary publicly announced that: “Indian Armed Forces will deploy 5G”, and further added that “5G is at a nascent stage in India and no industrial deployment has taken place within India, while Indian Forces are eager to leverage futuristic applied sciences”. Indian telecom leaders like Airtel, Jio and VI are partnering with Ericsson and Nokia to deploy 5G in India. Towards the Atmanirbhar vision of India, Airtel and Tata Group have joined forces and have entered into a strategic partnership for deploying Made in India 5G. A state-of-the-art O-RAN based Radio & NSA/SA stack has been developed by TCS. The same is likely to be ready for mass deployment by Jan 2022. In layman’s terms Non-Standalone (NSA) and Stand Alone (SA) are two tracks/ approaches that can be taken to migrate (transit) from 4G to 5G. This throws up a challenge: 4G and LTE were designed to transit to future generations of International Mobile Telecommunication but CDMA and 3G are not. Indian Armed Forces are mainly using CDMA /3G in their exclusive cellular networks.

Military grade 5G can’t be compartmentalised into Army /Navy /Air Force. Doing so would be a waste of effort, money and time. Each service will individually cross the same technology hurdles. Signals, primarily due to its size and proficient ICT skill sets, should be the lead agency for Indian Military 5G with representation from other sister services

For risk analysis of technology selection, it is important to understand that O-RAN Software Community (OSC) is the collaboration between the O-RAN ALLIANCE and Linux Foundation with the mission to support creation of software for Radio Access Network (RAN). It must be noted that Red Hat Linux is a huge success story of the commercialised Linux Forum. OSC too is likely to be a sound collaboration. But while RAN, including RNC and UTRAN, has been taken care of, other complicated aspects corresponding to higher planes of 5G, like Network Splicing, Network /Device management through AI, and new and unique security challenges, would need immediate addressing.

The Indian initiative appears to be promising. The end-result in the backdrop of economic aspects and international 5G race will pose many financial and technology risks on Indian 5G ISPs. The government must support Indian Civil and Military 5G in a big way to make it an international success.

Indian Military 5G

Military 5G can’t be looked at through a different prism. A Civil 5G with customised RAN, NW Splicing, Management and Security will be the foundation of Military 5G. The initiative of Indian Signals is commendable. The following merit due attention:

Approach: Military grade 5G can’t be compartmentalised into Army /Navy /Air Force. Doing so would be a waste of effort, money and time. Each service will individually cross the same technology hurdles. Signals, primarily due to its size and proficient ICT skill sets, should be the lead agency for Indian Military 5G with adequate representation from other sister services. The AI, virtualisation stacks, security and NW Splices could be fine tuned to meet service specific peculiarities. Most importantly, GoI has a major role to play. The initiative of MCTE, Mhow, needs to be further strengthened to form the R&D centre of Mil 5G to develop Mil prototypes. These can be test-bedded in service specific ecosystems.

Another important aspect of the Mil 5G approach that needs to be addressed is: “There has to be a strategic partnership between Military and Industry”, and not left to the Military technical academic institutes. In this strategic partnership, the Military (MCTE and the Service Representatives) must be given appropriate financial power and not be confined by DAP and DFAPDS. In my opinion, DRDO needs to be co-opted in an advisory role and not R&D.

Challenges: The basic concept of 5G being a connection between device to device over super high RAN with low latency and guaranteed availability throws up many challenges. Some of these are new and unique.

The issue with the Indian Army is that its IMT infrastructure is CDMA and pre-2G era. The only option with them is to replace it with 5G RAN. For 4G and LTE networks that IAF and IN may have, they need to decide between the approach of Standalone or Non-Standalone RAN

RAN: The issue with the Indian Army is that its IMT infrastructure is CDMA and pre-2G era. The only option with them is to replace it with 5G RAN. For 4G and LTE networks that IAF and IN may have, they need to decide between the approach of Standalone or Non-Standalone RAN. Virtual RAN (vRAN) implemented through open standards RAN is futureproof. In this regard, Tata’s O-RAN alliance is an interesting development for Indian Armed Forces to watch. Another important aspect of 5G RAN is that the routers must be 5G compliant and should be able to support SDN functionalities. There are many router /switch manufacturers who are supplying routers that are not 5G compliant. Deployment of such routers in the 5G infosphere will pose many problems in performance, speed and latency. In addition, aspects like network slicing/network function virtualisation and AI NW management too would be restricted.

Network Slicing: Performance of IoMT (or for that matter IoT) enhances multi-fold with network slicing. In IoMT, expansion over over-sized networks would be time consuming and restrict the availability of 5G infrastructure and services.

Management: Since in 5G we are primarily connecting devices that range from low end sensors to AR, VR, Autonomous vehicles, UAVs, M2M, AI at edge and cloud, etc., the density and population of devices would run into millions in an operational area. Managing these functionalities and provisioning of servicers will need AI-based OAM and SOCs.

5G and AI Capable /Enabled Infosphere: The expanse of 5G addresses all types of services like M2M, AI, AR/VR, IoMT, and intelligent connectivity. Computing as well as storage must be available both at the edge as well as the cloud on as-required basis. For this, communication and IT systems being procured must be 5G capable. Plans must be put in place to upgrade existing/ contracted Next Gen Networks to Software Defined Networks with appropriate virtualisation.

Security and Paradigm Shift in Cyber Regulations: Security is one vertical in 5G that has seen a major change. Virtualisation is mandatory yet it opens the vulnerabilities in 5G. As explained earlier, cyberattacks on 5G have taken a new form. Not only the Networks but even the dumbest of devices must be protected. “Vulnerabilities will increase in unimaginable proportions”. Private operators operate in a business environment and turnover and profits are their major objectives. In the race to capture the user base they will postpone investments on protection of the 5G infosphere. Patches and fixes will be postponed. Putting the onus of cyber security and its burden solely on the IPS is an unrealistic expectation.

Military 5G will come at a considerable cost. The existing ICT Infostructure will have to be made 5G ready. The existing 3G /CDMA Mobile Cellular infrastructure would need total replacement

The government will have to bring in Cyber Regulatory Paradigms like Inspection and Certification of Connected Devices. Contracts alone will not be sufficient to regulate; appropriate changes in contract will have to be incorporated. The 5G supply chain would be in the ratio of 40:60: Hardware: Software – both will need to be addressed simultaneously. Moving the production base offshore would add to security challenges. Issues like Data Security, Eavesdropping, Electronic Warfare environment, and inadvertent EM interference also pose additional challenges to Military 5G. These need to be fully addressed before deployment. Unlike the roll out of existing Mil 3G/ CDMA/ 4G, these can’t wait till after rollout. Another important aspect of security is spectrum awareness of RAN. This implies that location of devices, their priority and hierarchical importance would be available in the vRAN. These will have to be adequately protected.

Cost Implications: Military 5G will come at a considerable cost. The existing ICT Infostructure will have to be made 5G ready. The existing 3G /CDMA Mobile Cellular infrastructure would need total replacement. Taking the US DoD 5G testbed as a ballpark figure and accounting for inexpensive IT skin-ware in India, customisation R&D alone would take about ₹884 crores (1/5th the cost). In this the 5G RAN device cost is not included.

Migration: Mil 5G in India will be based upon heterogenous Networks. To ensure its timely and guaranteed availability in greenfield operational areas, the network must be a combination of terrestrial, wireless, Satellite, and HAPS (High Altitude Aerial Platform Systems), etc. Will the futuristic SDRs be capable of interworking in the 5G infosphere?

Conclusion

The 5G infosphere is complex at the technology level. But its user level complexities have been simplified through AI and virtualisation. Unfortunately, the degree of virtualisation increase is directly proportional to increase in vulnerabilities. Economic compulsions of ISPs, that primarily governs their business strategy, will open new vulnerabilities and their delayed resolution through patches. The MoD needs to invest more in Mil 5G. With the experience of the past success stories of Military NWs (ASCON), Indian Military 5G for use at tactical level must be under a High Technology Team steered by the Defence Secretary. The likely time frame, based upon US 5G test-bedding, would be a minimum 5 years. Is it OK to wait for another 5 years before firming up of 5G as a Tactical Communication System? Or, to fill the operational void, as an interim, does the Indian Military need to look at other technologies that provide low latency, high bandwidth, reliable and survivable communications to static as well as mobile Ground/Air/Sea based platforms/devices and entities?

– The author is a retired Indian Army officer from Signals. He has vast experience in design and rollout of ICT Communication Infrastructure both Strategic and Tactical. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda