Digital fortress: 5G is a weapon in national defense

A new generation of warfighting will occur (and be enabled by) low-latency 5G networks.

The military is weaponizing 5G

Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. In the 2020s, that old chestnut should probably be updated: "Professionals talk about the network."

And boy are they talking. The U.S. government will be one of the biggest spenders on private 5G infrastructure, and the Department of Defense leads the pack. DoD's growing network demands include connecting in-field technology as well as supporting day-to-day base operations and force training. DoD's need for increased connectivity is driving greater investment in 4G LTE, but that's only laying the foundation for a massive shift to 5G.

It turns out that shift is already underway. According to Lt Col Brandon Newell, Director, SoCal Tech Bridge, NavalX, since July of this year the 5G Living Lab aboard MCAS Miramar, a partnership with Verizon, has been active, representing the first 5G Ultra Wideband mmWave deployment on a military installation in the nation.

"Our intent is to embrace 5G-enabled tech that is being used to advance commercial industries as a weapon in the Defense Market," says Lt Col Newell. "We are embarking to explore base resilience through energy management and communications, security through what we call 'the digital fortress,' and mobility across modalities such as autonomous vehicles and unmanned aerial systems."

In other words, 5G will serve as the undergirding for a new generation of warfighting.

"More so than with other technologies in the past, we're seeing that the Department of Defense (DoD) and military leaders realize how important 5G is for their departments and are eager to adopt it," says Nick Nilan, Director of Product Development, Public Sector for Verizon, who helped me understand the scope of adoption. "Military leaders across the country are improving their infrastructure so they are ready to take advantage of 5G. Widespread cloud adoption over the last few years has also driven an increased demand for better connectivity. In order to access information in the cloud anywhere, anytime, you need better connectivity – you need 5G."

Nilan points out that we're already seeing early 5G uses cases in healthcare, including in augmented reality surgical tools for the Department of Veterans Affairs' Project Convergence. 5G connectivity will also improve efficiencies for supply chain and logistics management through improved computer vision and artificial intelligence on video cameras to better track movement of materials. Data transmission and analytics, key to managing DoD's logistical challenges, will also benefit.

"5G combined with edge computing will provide the essential backbone for new technologies and capabilities," says Nilan, "many of which are still on the horizon. Edge computing's decentralized architecture brings technology resources closer to where data is generated, decreasing lags in response time. Combined with 5G's massive bandwidth, super-fast speeds and significantly lower latency, 5G and edge computing can unlock the full potential of technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, robotics, immersive reality and automation for the military. Verizon's 5G First Responder Lab works with companies to develop 5G-enabled tools and applications for public safety and military, such as supercharged drones, an AI-powered weapons detection solution and a mobile command center."

Faster networks will also enable AR/VR technology for advanced training solutions. 

"To fully realize the potential of autonomous vehicles, we need 5G connectivity," says Nilan. "For the military, autonomous vehicles mean more efficient transfer of supplies and potentially avoiding sending people into dangerous situations. In the field, 5G and edge computing will advance surveillance and situational awareness technologies. Drones can livestream photos and videos and use AI to create digital 3D maps in near real-time, enhancing situational awareness and allowing leaders to make more informed decisions. Commanders can use platforms that gather data from IoT sensors in the field and use AI to process the data into actionable insights to inform decision making."

In addition to MCAS Miramar, which became the first US military base with access to Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband service and will serve as a "living lab," Verizon has also provided Naval Base Point Loma and Naval Base Coronado with the connectivity and network solutions needed to upgrade their network infrastructure and put them on the path to 5G.

The MCAS deployment is already teaching DoD valuable lessons.

"We learned how to assess and mitigate potential interference and dead zones," Lt Col Newell tells me. "Secondly, we are learning about cellular enabled technology. Our first pilot involved a security surveillance system which involves a sensor suite, computing on the edge and artificial intelligence. The deployment of this technology on the 5G Living Lab allows us an opportunity to understand how developers leverage computing on the edge in order to reduce the bandwidth requirements. This in turn enables the system to be deployed on 4G when 5G is not available. This type of capability validation strengthens the Marine Corps' requirement development especially for cutting edge technology."