THE MIL & AERO COMMENTARY – One of the most intriguing aspects of next-generation military technology involves emerging fifth-generation wireless communications -- better-known as 5G. While many of us see 5G as a slick and fast new cell phone technology, its potential for the military truly stretches the imagination.
What's exciting about 5G isn't what today's cell phone companies are touting -- far from it. While the 5G cell phone services being rolled out offer incremental improvements in speeds and latency, the real promise of 5G for military civil applications will come later with widespread millimeter wave 5G that will operate on frequencies between 24 and 300 GHz.
The millimeter wave frequency range offers military and civil authorities applications like control of swarming unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); augmented- and virtual reality for simulation, training and mission rehearsal; real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); distributed command and control; smart warehousing and logistics; and dynamic RF spectrum use.
Add artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and mobile ad-hoc networking (MANET) technologies, and the military capabilities really start to grow. The fast throughput of millimeter wave 5G has the potential to keep super-fast microprocessors, general-purpose graphics processing units (GPGPU), field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), and other data-processing architectures fed -- even when exchanging information from the tactical cloud.
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MANET technology offers to switch communications channels quickly to other available RF frequencies when and if 5G signals are blocked, jammed, or out of range. All this would be transparent to the user, which will increase reliability for military and civil users alike.
5G capabilities will involve three frequency bands: low band, which operates at frequencies lower than 1 GHz; mid band, which operates at frequencies between 1 GHz and 6 GHz; and high band, or millimeter wave, which operates at frequencies between 24 and 300 GHz. Low band and mid band collectively also are called sub-6, and this is where all of today's so-called 5G cell phone services operate, with limited millimeter wave cell phone service rolling out in a handful of large cities.
There's a downside to fast 5G, however, and the biggest stumbling block is range. Millimeter wave signals can travel perhaps a mile under the best conditions, and usually a lot less in the presence of rain, tall buildings, mountains and hills, dense foliage, and any kind of electronic interference or electronic warfare jamming.
As a result, the military will need vastly more transmit-and-receive towers at fixed-site and mobile locations. This will mean substantial investment and additional time necessary to get military 5G services up and running -- particularly in difficult terrain at the leading edge of the battlefield where commanders can anticipate enemy jamming or other kinds of interference.
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Fortunately the U.S. military places a big priority on developing and deploying 5G capabilities. The Pentagon has designated several military bases as 5G test beds to try out enabling technologies and to device new 5G military applications. In October the military announced $600 million in contracts for 5G experimentation and testing at five military test sites, which represents the largest full-scale 5G tests for dual-use applications in the world.
More experiments are planned, which should reveal possibilities for bringing 5G capabilities to the edge of the battlefield, how to share 5G RF spectrum with civil communications networks, how to fold-in AI and machine learning to 5G applications, using augmented- and virtual-reality for simulation, training, and command and control, and for supplying forward-deployed warfighters in the field.
For now, however, 5G for the military remains in its infancy, with another couple of years necessary to mature today's 5G enabling technologies sufficiently to start deploying 5G where it's needed most. The military is on its way realizing this promising future; it just won't come as quickly as most military leaders would like.
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