This article first appeared as an interview with the European Security Defence Magazine.
April 2021, page 61
For current defence network systems, carrying more than voice and simple datagrams to and from the tactical network edge poses a technical challenge. However, IEEE 5G Wireless, along with mmWave frequency bands at 57-71 GHz, has the unique ability to meet this challenge, and deliver robust and covert multi-gigabit edge computing communications to the tactical edge.
The impact of 5G upon tactical comms networks at subunit and forward edge level
To answer this question, we first need to define what we mean by 5G. The performance requirements for 5G were originally defined by ITU-R in 2015 as IMT2020 but this did not define the implementation standard. Original intentions were to create a ‘network of networks’ to integrate existing wireless interfaces (from 3GPP Mobile, IEEE Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc.) within a single coherent standards framework. However, due to commercial conflicts between standards groups this was not possible, leading to the continued fragmentation of standards chiefly around 3GPP Mobile and IEEE Wi-Fi – both of which are aimed at delivering the 5G KPIs for sub msec latency, gigabit throughput and support for Massive IoT.
Moreover, most general marketing attention is focused on 3GPP Mobile which is being marketed as ‘5G’ – whereas the underpinning technical standards are primarily based on extensions of 4G LTE with additional features to deliver support for a wider range of frequencies (down 700 MHz and up to mmWave at 28/39 GHz) still all based on the same OFDM waveform as used in 4G LTE systems. This pragmatic approach allows ease of backwards compatibility and scaling of chipsets and network architectures for rollout by device manufacturers and commercial operators working within licensed frequency bands at the expense of sub-optimum performance, increased power consumption and continued need for a centralised core network.
On the other hand, IEEE-based 5G wireless standards, including 802.11ax and particularly 11ad and 11ay, provide the required gigabit performance within a more open peer to peer framework (supporting IP connectivity) at lower power consumption and complexity (SWAP) than 3GPP based systems. Critically, IEEE-based systems do not require a centralised core-based network and already include native quality of service mechanisms, which allow data stream prioritisation (e.g., voice over video over data) that avoid the need for more complex mechanisms such as Network Slicing.
Blu Wireless mmWave networking equipment operates within the 802.11ad/ay standards over the licence exempt 57-71 GHz spectrum and allows support for wide (2 GHz) channel widths for robust gigabit rate communications using lower modulation levels. Therefore, IEEE 5G based systems are better matched to the needs of tactical communications for the following reasons:
- Standalone, secure & stealthy
- Easily interfaced to other communications systems (via IP/Ethernet)
- Flexible use of non-commercial spectrum
- Resilient to single point failures and channel interference
- Simple and rapid set-up
- Utilise distributed, peer to peer, mesh networks rather than a centralised core, star topology network (which means there is no single point of failure)
- Flexibility to support a wide range of use cases from space, air, land and naval forces.
Crucially, Size, Weight and Power (SWAP) for IEEE 5G based systems is also compatible with the needs of vehicle level and soldier level deployments. Due to its built-in Doppler correction, the IEEE standard network can be included on almost any tactical platform. Blu Wireless is working with a number of customers in the defence sector to apply and extend its mmWave technology, which is currently being deployed for ‘Rail-5G’ applications, to tactical comms at the network edge. This includes Mobile Edge Compute (MEC) functionality for smart networking and first level data analytics.
The long-term implications of 5G at the battlefield level
Tactical integration of multi spectral (Radar/IR/Video/ELINT/ SIGNIT) sensor data from multiple sources in real time will define the future of battlefield communications. The ability of 5G (as defined above) to deliver peer to peer dynamic mesh networks will form a key part of this vision.
For example, radar sensor data from one vehicle or drone can be combined with ELINT from another physically distanced drone and then integrated via AI into fire control systems. Thus, each vehicle or drone can be focused on a specific capability within a cluster with the tactical 5G network used to integrate these capabilities in real time.
The complexity, power consumption and size for each element can be minimised and enhanced with new capabilities as technologies mature and evolve at different rates. In turn, this reduces the complexity of procurement programmes as the requirements for each platform can be simplified and focused on one or two core capabilities. A good example of this trend is seen in the UK’s Tempest next generation fighter programme for the RAF which will use ‘Swarms of Drones’ controlled by the aircraft to extend the total platform battlefield capability.
Challenges associated with 5G, especially moving up the chain of command
Integration of multiple data sources and communications across a wide range of operations, including space, air, land, and sea, has been recognised as a key strategic challenge for the future of military command and control. A recent example is the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative from the US DoD, which is aimed at integrated multiple, as well as legacy, communication networks with new AI data-driven command and control requirements. ‘Tactical 5G’ has an important role to play in providing an open, flexible and secure communications framework as part of this initiative.
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