Standalone 5G networks will transform military operations


June 10, 2022

Standalone 5G networks will transform military operations

5G networks are under test by the US military as part of the US DoD initiative to enable advanced communications for service members. Hughes image.

As devices get smarter and generate more data, military users must find secure, high-data-rate methods to access all of this information, no matter their tactical location. New 5G networks will support quick and secure access to this data, bringing it even closer to the tactical edge by leveraging the agility of software-enabled techniques. Military planners need to consider how to provide this same 5G speed, flexibility, and uninterrupted data access to all users, no matter the location.

Resilient broadband satellite communications (SATCOM) connectivity from commercial providers can connect defense users worldwide with locations both close by and remote. In addition to this geographic reach, these multitransport networks can deliver operational and cost efficiencies with intelligent artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML)-based networking and orchestration, plus access to the 5G edge cloud.

As connected devices get smarter and generate more data, military users face the challenge of finding secure, high-data-rate methods to access this information no matter their tactical location. New 5G technology can support high-performance networks that will transform how the US military does everything from aircraft maintenance to in-theater operations. Connecting these 5G networks via satellites will enable their use anywhere in the world and provide a high level of network resiliency. To understand how this can be implemented for military users, let’s use an example: Military base maintenance personnel need to work on equipment – ​​with near-real-time assistance, sometimes from a distance – on remote inspection and engineering support.

Technology that was developed for the next generation of wireless connectivity, known as 5G, can provide a communications “speed lane” alongside existing Wi-Fi networks, capable of connecting thousands of devices aboard ships, on military bases, and even among tactical formations engaged in field operations. These multitransport networks can deliver operational and cost efficiencies by using edge application servers, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) to help manage and orchestrate the network. Wideband satellite connectivity can connect users worldwide, creating a “network of networks” crisscrossing the planet and delivering higher speeds, lower latency, and more capacity for military units virtually anywhere.

5G networks, including the latest standalone technology, are under test by the US military in several locations as part of the US Department of Defense (DoD) initiative to provide advanced communications for members of the various services:

  1. In a demonstration for the Army, a leading defense contractor outfitted several small drones with 5G antennas. The drones were flown over a truck convoy that had a driver in the lead truck while the other vehicles were self-driving, taking commands via the drone network. The convoy maneuvered over a wide test range.
  2. Hughes is leading a 5G standalone system installation at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state to show how a 5G network, with a local edge cloud, can support base operations, aircraft maintenance, and flight fueling management. (Figure 1.)
  3. Personnel in many flightline operations currently depend on pickup trucks using walkie-talkies to patrol the airfield prior to flight operations, checking for debris that could be sucked into jet engines. For safety, reliability, and efficiency, this operation could be accomplished with robots connected to the new 5G network.
  4. A jet-engine manufacturer demonstrated how an aircraft mechanic could wear a pair of augmented-reality (AR) glasses when working on a plane. The glasses display the steps for each task and can connect the mechanic to a manufacturer’s representative if there are questions or problems.

[Figure 1 | Graphic depicts a 5G standalone network used for testing at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that leverages multi-edge cloud processing, AI/ML-enabled network management, and high-throughput LEO and GEO satellites. Hughes graphic.]

The 5G standalone networks use off-the-shelf components sourced from US companies that will fit into small, transportable racks. They employ the new 5G radio (5G NR) access network and a 5G network core, making them cloud-native and independent of existing 4G LTE standards, as opposed to non-standalone 5G networks that use a 4G LTE RAN and network core. A 5G standalone network can link multiple types of devices from a wide range of manufacturers at the same time over several low-, mid-, and high-spectrum bands with significant capacity gains.

A key component of the network is a containerized software server that supports authenticated users and applications, known as multiaccess edge computing (MEC). A link through a GEO [geosynchronous Earth orbit] or LEO [low Earth orbit] satellite enables a central cloud to exchange data across a wide area with these MEC instances. Similarly, local network operations and security operations capability can provide flexibility while augmenting the overall security and network-management capability. Use of AI/ML techniques across the network and edge cloud further improves efficiency and resilience.

Obviously, network security is a top priority, made more complex because hundreds and thousands of devices from many different manufacturers and users may be connected at any given time for these tactical operations. To address this situation, engineers have designed the networks with a zero-trust architecture, with every component on the network meeting the requirements for role-based access control within the perimeter. Once on the network, the software ensures that the wide range of devices connect seamlessly with one another. For enhanced security, the network management, the user interface, and control data all run on different paths within the network. The management software instructs the network to self-correct to resolve most issues that may arise. The network architecture is also compatible with the National Security Agency’s Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) standard for transporting more sensitive information.

Best practices are surfacing for designing standalone 5G standalone networks. While the architecture of these networks may continue to evolve, some conclusions gleaned from these demonstrations include:

  1. The degree of sophistication of a network should be in line with the type of operation required. Consumer-grade 5G network equipment might be fine for managing and tracking the inventory of a supply base. But a network that supports AR glasses to help a mechanic work on an airplane engine will require servers, antennas, and other components suited to that specific task.
  2. Satellite connectivity should be part of any network for a 5G standalone system to connect to tactical sites and the wider world for backhaul, network resilience, and redundancy. GEO satellites provide wide area coverage and high-capacity density and should be augmented with LEO satellites for operations requiring low latency and global coverage.
  3. The ease of using conventional Wi-Fi networks should not create a mindset that 5G networks are simple. From initial installation to routine day-to-day operation, these networks have high configurability and require continuous management and monitoring and operational efficiency enhanced with AI/ML.

The 5G networks are not meant to replace existing Wi-Fi networks, but are instead intended to provide a resilient and high-performance communications path that is more robust and much more reliable than conventional Wi-Fi. A 5G network can support many more devices and can be set up indoors or outdoors to connect everything from soldier cellphones to devices embedded throughout an aircraft carrier and – via satellite – hooked into remote tactical locations around the world.

The US military can significantly benefit from 5G to enhance its warfighting capabilities. The series of demonstrations now underway (Figure 2) highlight the various ways these networks can be used for a wide range of military operations. These demonstrations are also helping network engineers refine their designs and determine the best off-the-shelf components to support 5G technology. Conclusions gleaned from these demos will guide the DoD in selecting the tools, satellite connections, and network-management protocols for 5G technology to improve the capabilities of the US military.

[Figure 2 | Aircraft demonstrations at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (Washington) are highlighting the ways in which secure, standalone 5G network architecture can be used with edge cloud processing and satellite backhaul.]

Dr. Rajeev Gopal, vice president at Hughes Network Systems, leads the company’s advanced engineering programs. His work spans 5G, LEO, and GEO high-throughput satellite technologies, leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), cloud, and cybersecurity innovations. Prior to joining Hughes, Dr. Gopal led automation projects for clinical and cancer research and development at CTIS. A member of the IEEE 5G World Forum, he serves on the editorial board of Wiley’s International Journal of Satellite Communications and Networking (IJSCN). Dr. Gopal earned a Ph.D. in computer science from Vanderbilt University and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) in Pilani, India.

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