The impact of 5G and mmWave: Modernising defence communications

This article first appeared as an interview in the July/August edition of ‘Global Military Communications’. Edited by Laurence Russell, Assistant Editor, GMC.

With Militaries around the globe adopting ambitious modernisation programmes, 5G technologies are being highlighted as a critical component in the network architecture to bring connectivity to the edge. However, there’s a big gap in how to connect military IoT applications. in the face of defence forces prioritising their modernisation budgets in expectation of 5G technologies, many businesses are adopting new strategies to solve this technical challenge. IEEE mmWave in particular has moved into the spotlight as an innovate solution, as it will play an essential role in deploying networks that provide robust and covert gigabit edge processing for communication networking across IoT for the military.

A fundamental distinction: Military 5G differs from typical commercial 5G deployments

Millions of dollars are being spent on bringing 5G technologies to the military, a major objective being the roll out of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) applications, which integrate naval, land and air forces, via decentralised communications networks. That is at the upper end of the demand. 5G is also thoroughly relevant to simple tactical communications connecting individual soldiers and vehicles to their bases via simple, reliable networks. Our IEEE mmWave equipment is best known for delivering the latter set of applications. Our technology is very low size, weight and power (SWaP), typically 10W in a 1-2kg multi-node system, easily deployed on a forward operating vehicle or a soldier’s backpack. Additionally, these wireless mmWave communications networks are delivered with a low probability of intercept and detection.

Commoditised commercial communications equipment, such as 4GLTE and Wi-Fi systems, offers good communications, but is unfortunately easy to detect. This makes them obvious targets for electronic warfare systems, an important pitfall to recognise when planning the deployment of future systems. In contrast, mmWave allows for a more covert signal, almost impossible to detect via current generation electronic warfare systems. For example, a typical transmission at 60GHz would be approx. 150dB below the noise floor of an EW receiver at 10km range. Another advantage we leverage is simple mechanisms, which make our communications resemble wireless Ethernet rather than telecoms. In telecommunications, you’ll need to manage a more complex operation requiring extensive configuration and specialist telecom equipment knowledge, which organisations may not be able to mobilise across their deployments, particularly on short notice.

When you combine the low SWaP, covert performance, our gigabit capacity, ease of use, and legacy compatibility you end up with quite a compelling combination for tactical applications. Military and mission-critical applications often have quite specific needs too, requiring particular frequencies from 57- 71GHz up to even 90GHz or down to 30GHz for long-range applications up to 50km out. Our platform is frequency agnostic in terms of which part of the mmWave band we accommodate, making the best use of IEEE 5G technology.

The common use cases for military 5G

In order to define the most common use cases for 5G military technology, it’s best to take a step back to examine what the current generation of technology looks like.

Since the 1990s, Bowman has supplied the baseline communications system for the UK, introduced in 2010 to replace the analogue radio equipment used previously, which was known as Clansman. Bowman is limited to a data throughput of about 500Kbps per terminal, which was high-end and quite expensive at the time. Today, a connection speed like that wouldn’t be considered acceptable for modern data and IP video communications. However, this equipment represented an improvement in modern military communications network technology, which has satisfied a huge demand at the fighting edge for digital agility.

However, looking ahead most emergent situational awareness solutions and JADC2 infrastructure requires more. A single high-definition IP video stream for example requires 10-15Mbps of throughput. When it comes to multiple streams across multiple sensors, that demand multiplies. Hence, modern requirements are closer to the region of 50-100 Mbps, which the UK military for example has recognised and action is underway to modernise communications networks, with the launch of the Morpheus programme.

Considerations for size, weight, and power (SWaP)

We have a reputation as a leading system on chip (SoC) development company. The integration of complex functionality on a single piece of silicon has numerous advantages such as power consumption and performance thanks to the minimisation of the needed programmable chips. There’s also flexibility in this approach, for example, in our original design stages, we did not set out to support mobility, but because we had prepared for doppler compensation, we can support mobility quite comfortably to well in excess of several hundred kilometres per hour.

Typically, we integrate our mmWave and modem technology alongside an ARM-based Linux Network Processor, which offers additional software flexibility for IP layer switching. That flexibility extends to edge computing functionality, which allows us to run data/video analytics and other applications on the same equipment used for communications, all within a total power envelope of 30W or so. That is including robust aluminium chassis for rugged deployment and self-aligning sophistication which soldiers or teams needn’t worry about as they move. This can be compared to a typical mobile base station which delivers tens of Mbps at a power consumption of 1-1.5kW, where our IEEE 5G solution can supply up to 2Gbps within a SWaP of 30W.

IEEE mmWave technology for tactical 5G

mmWave technology, based on open standards, is enabling new use cases for tactical 5G networks that utilise unlicensed (non-commercial) spectrum and are resilient to channel interference. However, a misconception is often that such a network would require installing many more cell sites than those operating in the lower bands. The underlying assumption with this is often that the range in mmWave is low, which is not correct. The properties of the mmWave optimise it for line-of-sight communications. In our IEEE 5G system, we use software controlled phased array antennas that automatically detect and optimise the link. High frequency (HF) or very-high-frequency (VHF) military communications are best for long-range connections beyond the line of sight (50-100 km), which is perfect for long range voice communications, though they typically deliver low bandwidth and so don’t meet many modern data communication requirements.

mmWave is no panacea though. It’s susceptible to loss caused by foliage, for instance, which can be addressed with mesh networks using edge compute capability at each node to intelligently route data in the event of networking over vegetated environments. When it comes to high data rate demand, you need mmWave with flexible implementation, complimented as necessary with low-frequency radios serving as backup devices. With a mixed portfolio like this, all your bases are covered.

Interoperability and backward compatibility of 5G with its 4G and 3G predecessors

All generations are based on standards developed by the 3G public partnership (3GPP), which is a group of companies operating in the mobile operating industry like vendors and operators which have been collaborating for 20-25 years on interoperable standards for mobile communications.

The underlying centralised system architecture has not changed, which generally guarantees interoperability. We use a version of 5G which is part of the IEEE family of wireless and wired (Ethernet) communications. In our case, the interoperability point is at the MAC and IP layers. Everything we do is based on IP packet IEEE 802.3 Ethernet networking. For integration with 3GPP 5G, 4G, and 3G systems we would typically connect via an Ethernet gateway. We also have a number of commercial projects which integrate one with the other, for example on ORAN backhaul for mobile networks. Blu Wireless is developing very advanced commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology, heavily invested in both internally and externally. We’re now working on bringing new features to IEEE 5G technology around mobility, frequency, agnostic behaviour, and flexibility overlayed into a product for military use cases.

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