Pentagon Leveraging 5G To Fight in Electromagnetic Spectrum
Whether it’s to look up funny cat videos or operate a robotic system using wireless internet, 5G has become a staple in the everyday lives of many.
But for the Pentagon, the communications technology has become a key enabler for another more critical function — the ability to harness the electromagnetic spectrum for operations.
A significant amount of military weapon systems and applications depend on the electromagnetic spectrum — the range of frequencies or wavelengths of electromagnetic energy — to operate, according to a Congressional Research Service report published August 2021.
The spectrum supports military operations today by linking wireless communications, satellites, signal intelligence and radar technologies that support situational awareness and electronic warfare, said the report, titled “Overview of Department of Defense Use of the Electromagnetic Spectrum.”
To ensure the United States maintains its advantage over adversaries across an increasingly complex, congested and contested electromagnetic spectrum, or EMS, the Defense Department released its Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy in 2020. It called on the department to develop capabilities and policies that support electromagnetic spectrum operations — coordinated actions to exploit, attack, protect and manage the electromagnetic environment.
“In modern warfare, EMS superiority is a leading indicator and fundamental component of achieving superiority in air, land, sea, space or cyberspace,” the document said.
One of the emerging technologies the Pentagon believes will give a decisive edge on future battlefields — especially for electromagnetic spectrum operations — is the fifth-generation wireless network known as 5G, said Tom Rondeau, principal director for FutureG and 5G at the Pentagon’s Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
“It’s not just about the spectrum. It’s not just about the radio at the edge. It’s about the network and the control of that radio surface, and that becomes a really powerful tool for us to use,” Rondeau said during a panel discussion at the Association of Old Crows annual symposium in Washington, D.C.
The power of 5G comes from its ability to leverage higher frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum as well as the mid- and low-range frequencies accessible by its predecessor 4G. The addition of high-range frequencies allows the department to transmit vast amounts of information — such as critical communications needed for operations at the edge or sensor data — at a faster speed and lower latency, while maneuvering around the spectrum to perform actions on the best-suited frequency.
Rondeau compared 4G to a highway during rush hour — slow and congested with traffic.
“You want to differentiate your services. You want to have access roads and other highways and local roads and driveways,” he said. “And that’s what 5G starts to allow us to do — differentiate those services and split off those resources in a way that allows you to customize the network to your application.”
Another benefit of 5G is the additional flexibility it provides to users through technologies like network slicing, Rondeau said. Because of 5G architecture’s design, operators can “slice” parts of the 5G network and create a separate, isolated and secure network that is tailored to an application’s needs.
Those tailored networks can supply the Defense Department’s demand for unique network requirements among its variety of platforms, he said. In the past, organizations have had to create purpose-built networks from scratch for individual platforms or adhere to requirements for shared networks like Link 16, he noted.
“5G is going to allow us to pull that together and help us craft those different resource services — the network for bandwidth, latency, quality-of-service demands — per application,” he said.
The Pentagon has recognized the importance of 5G and its potential contributions to electromagnetic spectrum operations. In December 2020, the department released a separate 5G strategy implementation plan that outlined how it would accelerate its development — both for domestic platforms and those of U.S. allies and partners.
Since the strategy’s publication, the Pentagon has awarded contracts for 5G testing and experimentation at 16 locations across the country, according to a department press release.
Likewise, Congress authorized $120 million more than the Biden administration’s request for 5G technology development, experimentation and transition support in the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Defense Department will also be able to operate on the spectrum globally by utilizing the 5G infrastructure of the United States and its allies, according to the Pentagon’s 5G strategy implementation plan. These could be private, hybrid or public networks, the strategy noted.
For global operations that require using non-department spectrums, the Pentagon plans to use 5G technologies “such as end-to-end network slicing and adaptive techniques such as dynamic spectrum utilization to enable DoD to achieve the capability necessary to accomplish the mission,” the strategy read.
Marine Corps Maj. Ben Pimentel, communications officer and electronics engineer, said the ability to conduct electromagnetic spectrum operations alongside a host nation’s normal network traffic gives them an upper hand during “gray zone” missions before full-scale conflict operations.
During this window, Marines are looking to “provide complication and thought for the adversary,” he said at the symposium. “Blending into normal traffic can be really useful.”
“Operating across host nation’s 5G infrastructure, that we’re allies or partners with, it’s going to put our traffic alongside there,” he added. “If an adversary wants to take actions against that, they’re also going to be taking actions against our ally’s network — and potentially harming their own communications.”
However, the United States and its allies aren’t the only nations harnessing 5G for electronic warfare. As the spectrum becomes more accessible across the world, adversaries such as China gain the capability to exploit security vulnerabilities against the United States, noted the Pentagon’s 5G strategy.
“The complexity and diversity of 5G networks offer a wide range of potentially disruptive options to an adversary,” it read. The Pentagon could be at risk of an adversary hacking the network or intentionally jamming communications, it noted.
While operating 5G for electromagnetic spectrum operations has security risks, the network itself is designed with security measures built in at every layer, said Sheryl Genco, senior advisor at global telecommunications company Ericsson. As a developer of 5G communications, the company works with the Defense Department and commercial communications regulators.
“It’s very analogous to what is done on a base,” she said during the discussion. “First, you have your perimeter defense. Then you have little rings [of] defense around buildings … on the base. And then you have … security officers roaming. And that’s exactly what the network has.”
Furthermore, every layer of defense in the 5G network is reinforced by a zero trust architecture, she added. The cybersecurity framework requires all users and data to be authenticated and approved after every digital interaction.
“This authentication process … on every step of the way across the network is going to make it more secure,” Genco said. “And then, on top of it all, there’s new concepts that can make your network or make your end-to-end security more robust — one of those things is network slicing.”
But military adversaries aren’t the only entities on the electromagnetic spectrum that the Defense Department needs to worry about.
The need for advanced communications technologies in the consumer world has caused a growing demand for multiple frequency bands previously reserved for federal agencies, the 2021 Congressional Research Service report noted. With more commercial companies crowding into 5G, there is the possibility that they could disrupt military operations, it read.
The Pentagon and commercial partners are looking into spectrum sharing policies and technologies that will allow both the defense and commercial sectors to share bands on the electromagnetic spectrum without interference.
However, policymakers and stakeholders have been talking about spectrum sharing for decades, trying to align the incentives of both the commercial and federal sectors, Rondeau noted.
“We don’t have the same incentives, and we never will have the same incentives. I don’t think that that’s the solution” he said. “I would rather go at it like, ‘How do we actually make coexistence feasible? How do we build technologies that can enable coexistence and overcome some of these issues?’”
While multiple federal and commercial agencies are still understanding what the policies and standards for spectrum sharing should be, Pimentel emphasized that “technology solutions for spectrum sharing may alleviate some of that.”
Even though 5G is still a developing technology, the Pentagon and industry are already looking forward to the future generations of communications — such as 6G or FutureG — and their use cases for electromagnetic spectrum operations.
Next-generation networks could lead to better integrated sensing and communications, Pimental said. As the need and technology for 5G communications grows, so does the density and deployment of advanced radio access networks that can allow warfighters to sense their environment, he said.
“So, as opposed to just thinking about it as a communication platform, from an EW perspective I would encourage you to think of it as a sensing platform,” he said.
The Marine Corps is developing capabilities that use 5G radio access networks to produce radio frequency spectrum maps to give the service an idea of what’s happening on different frequencies at different locations, he said.
The capability could also help the Corps identify possible targets or even mitigate interference on the spectrum “that now forms the basis for an electronic support mission, which can inform the electronic attack,” he said.
Genco added that as innovation continues, future generations of wireless communications will build upon the technology of 5G while simultaneously opening up new markets and businesses around the capability.
Next-generation wireless is the realization of the 5G promise, she said. “It’s limitless connectivity, everything can be connected. That’s millions of sensors in a kilometer squared — it just blows my mind.”