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5G: Bringing Bandwidth to the Tip of the Spear

May 15, 2023May 15, 2023

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The annals of military history are full of tales where the role of communication—or the lack of—tipped the scales in a battle. During the Civil War, for instance, both sides took full advantage of a revolutionary technology—the telegraph—to achieve near real-time, two-way communication between leaders and field commanders. But Robert E. Lee lost track of one of his most important assets during the Battle of Gettysburg; he didn't know where J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry were and couldn't find them. The North won the battle, and the South was never again able to regain momentum.

Eighty years later, the Allies’ ability to intercept and decrypt Nazi Germany's Enigma code was crucial to winning World War II. In other words, in combat the side with superior communications holds a significant advantage.

Today, the ubiquity of information technology in the military is transforming the communication function itself. The U.S. military has moved to an interconnected battlespace, where data needs to move seamlessly between air, land, sea, space and cyber in real time. That means there is a need for internet bandwidth, capable of supporting ultra-high data demands—a 5G-powered network.

The Changing Battlefield Environment

Voice communication, whether by telephone or by radio, has been a core function of comms networks for decades. Couriers had to deliver other information, however, such as photos of troop movements, physical and manmade obstacles, opponents’ equipment and weapons. They could be described over the radio, but they couldn't be transmitted.

The information technology (IT) revolution changed that limitation in important ways. For instance, satellites could transmit near real-time images to commanders on the ground, as long as they had the right equipment to receive them. Leaders at the Pentagon, the White House and all the central commands could watch events as they unfolded.

It is important to remember this advance is recent. The raid on Osama bin Laden's home in Pakistan was just a dozen years ago, in May 2011.

Meanwhile, innovations in everything from equipping battlefield systems with built-in compute and communications capabilities to video-equipped drones or small, affordable sensors have all generated an explosion of digitized information. Today, modern battlefield networks increasingly are responsible for not only voice communications but large and varied data, including still images, video, sensor data, maps, situational awareness data and inventory information. These networks must gather all that data, send it for analysis by remote compute resources and then distribute the fruits of that analysis back to the battlefield.

But all that data, no matter how crucial or time-sensitive, still must compete for limited network bandwidth on a contested battlefield. This is where the use of 5G technology comes in.

Bringing 5G Capacity, Capabilities to the Battlespace

Unlike traditional military communications systems built for single channel voice-based command and control, 5G is designed to provide high-speed data connections to many devices and users simultaneously—it is not solely, or even primarily, about voice communications. It's about acquiring and distributing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data and running applications such as the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK), an Android geospatial infrastructure and situation awareness app that lets users navigate, locate and mitigate threats, and share information among themselves.

The Department of Defense is exploring the use of 5G in the battlespace. One effort is to provide it to forward operating bases (FOBs), which are set up near where fighting is expected and serve as the launch points for troops, vehicles and weapon systems. In this scenario, 5G capabilities must support a larger geographic footprint, many users, and the full range of data flows—from satellites to drones, sensors to cloud computing.

The second way 5G fits the battlespace is by radically improving the communications ability at "the tip of the spear"—the warfighters in the battle. It works with a wide range of low-cost devices, such as smartphones, tablets, sensors, cameras and drones, and has the bandwidth for thousands of devices at once.

But there are constraints and challenges to using 5G in a combat setting. First is achieving size, weight and power requirements while keeping it "hardened" to protect in a hostile environment. For a small, single 5G "bubble," a vehicle-mounted or backpack solution that is run off battery or vehicle power must have a small, light form factor.

For instance, Nokia has developed Banshee in partnership with Fenix Group, Inc., an all-in-one 4G/5G network that fits the physical requirements for troops to carry in the battlespace. When Banshee is switched on, it provides 4G/5G coverage for the deployed warfighters to use off-the-shelf National Security Agency-approved smartphones to connect to each other, acquire video feeds from drone-mounted cameras, access ISR data and monitor the underlying biometrics (heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) of those in the network, among other capabilities.

This is an important innovation that differs from commercial 5G deployments. "The technology was primarily designed for commercial mobile network operators," says Ken Riordan, Nokia's principal architect, Federal Division. "They have teams of highly trained engineers to design, build and operate large networks that cover wide geographic areas supporting millions of users. Banshee is already configured, so that when it is turned on it sets up its bubble and communicates immediately with cellular devices in its zone."

While these bubbles in the field might seem relatively small, they can autonomously locate and interconnect with each other, expanding the territorial range and creating mesh networking for a much larger troop deployment. And larger 5G solutions can be located at FOBs and mesh with forward-deployed units.

Second, a 5G solution must be able to integrate into the broader military communication systems, such as mobile ad hoc network (MANET) tactical radios, the Army's Integrated Tactical Network (ITN), satellite communication and other legacy communication systems to meet its potential—integrating 5G into the overall communications capability will enable it to enhance capabilities across the battlespace.

Like wireless radio transmissions, 5G can be detected, intercepted and/or jammed. There are ways to mitigate these risks. It's hard to jam a 5G network because it can operate in many different parts of the radio frequency spectrum, with a typical smartphone that supports dozens of bands ranging from 600MHz up to 39GHz. As for interception, encryption—post-quantum and quantum-resistant algorithms—is part of the answer and there are other techniques to avoid revealing what kind of data, such as a video stream, is being transmitted.

Bringing Commercial 5G Technology to the Fight

One way that 5G is a radical departure for troops in the battlespace is that it is a fully realized commercial technology, widely deployed throughout the private sector using well-defined standards. Many, if not most, U.S. residents are familiar with its benefits, thanks to streaming services, high-definition televisions and graphics-intensive gaming, to name a few.

As a result, military personnel in the battlespace bring with them expectations for how their communications devices will work—their speed and accuracy, the quality of the images they transmit and how easily troops can share information. They expect that an app such as ATAK will work as well as the apps they use at home.

"There are billions of subscribers on this planet, and that reality has resulted in 5G creating capabilities that are both very high-powered and economical," Riordan said. "That economic reality is fundamental to a military's leveraging of 5G."

Using this kind of commercial technology is cost-effective for the military, even taking into account the customization needed such as hardening. That makes 5G a good fit for the requirements of joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) operations across all branches as well as with and among U.S. allies.


Military communications have come a long way from the telegraph that had such an impact on the Civil War. Existing legacy voice communication systems such as radio and phone are still an essential part of the military landscape.

Using 5G fills a niche that legacy systems do not serve—and it's a niche growing rapidly as the volume of data generated by IT and the Internet of Things (e.g., sensors) becomes a tsunami. It provides a competitive advantage in the battlespace, while opening the prospect of even more advanced military technology.

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The Changing Battlefield Environment Bringing 5G Capacity, Capabilities to the Battlespace Bringing Commercial 5G Technology to the Fight Conclusion