Col. Michael Driscoll, Director of Future Operations at Nellis Air Force Base, says 5G will improve efficiency.

May 03 2021

Military 5G Testing Will Pave the Way for Modernization

Pilot programs at five Defense Department locations are set to advance the use of technology to streamline operations.

With 2 million acres of land and 5,000 square miles of airspace, Nellis Air Force Base is “the Super Bowl of air power,” says Air Force Col. Michael Driscoll, director of future operations at the Nevada base.

“Germany, Japan and our allies from all over the world come to Nellis to integrate and execute tactics,” he adds.

With that world-spanning mission in mind, Nellis became one of five military installations chosen by the Department of Defense in 2019 to serve as 5G testing grounds. Driscoll’s team is looking to leverage 5G to create a more resilient command and control (C2) environment to support pilots and on-the-ground personnel during combat.

Today, the base is in the first phase of implementation, which includes planning infrastructure and awarding contracts to testing partners. AT&T is the base’s central contact for supplying the 5G network, and other vendors will work with the base to design specific applications for combat.

As federal agencies make strides in edge computing, most believe that 5G (and beyond that, 6G) will lead to great leaps forward in everything from research to ­operational efficiency. Driscoll admits that ­implementing the full power of 5G in combat is still years away, but the implications, he says, will be a game changer.

5G Supports the Deployment of Innovative Tech for the Military 

Fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G, uses conventional frequencies below 6 gigahertz, but also uses the millimeter frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, known as the mmWave portion, between 30GHz and 300GHz.

This portion of the spectrum can handle data speeds anywhere from 10 to 100 times faster than current ­wireless speeds. It also has more ­bandwidth, so it can support more devices at one time, and much lower latency, the time it takes for a signal to travel between two points.

For consumers, the speed of 5G ­networks may vary. However, for the DOD implementation, military organizations are working directly with carriers to create custom 5G networks to support specific operations. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is setting 5G standards for all federal agencies, and sponsoring the 5G mmWave Channel Model Alliance, an international research consortium created to advance 5G standards and facilitate knowledge sharing.

Driscoll says that 5G can play a role in keeping C2 assets safe during battle. “Our current air operations centers are large buildings that centralize hundreds of Air Force operators and key leadership critical to directing air operations,” he says. “A fixed building is vulnerable.

“But with 5G, we can disaggregate C2 and make it agile, mobile and difficult to target,” he says. “The concept is to connect sensors for all domains — land, air and space — and feed that common operating picture via a data cloud so that operators can connect to and direct operations from anywhere.”

The Air Force is also moving toward a software-based modernization of its aircraft. Right now, older planes have little interoperability as newer aircraft join the service. Driscoll would like to see future planes ­outfitted with software that could be updated instantly.

“It’s all about adapting to the threat,” he says. “Say there’s radar that’s jamming our planes’ onboard systems. A 5G communications system will be able to update the jet’s software to overcome the radar’s jamming signal.”

DIVE DEEPER: Why network security can’t be an afterthought with 5G. 

5G Attributes Aid the Air Force and Navy 

The unique attributes of 5G make it ideal for the agility and speed needed for combat. Theodore Rappaport, founder of the NYU WIRELESS research center, co-wrote a paper for IEEE Access that discusses LAN configurations for 5G in the military and how higher-band mmWave technology can contribute to high data rates while simultaneously achieving covertness.

“[Because 5G utilizes] a wide swath of the spectrum at the mmWave level, data can move quickly to different parts across a vast amount of spectral bands,” Rappaport says. “Using a wideband ­signal in these different spectral regions, highly adaptive antennas help focus these beams on specific targets, making it difficult to find or jam the signal.”

At Naval Base Coronado, military staff, civilian scientists and engineers from the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific and Naval Supply Systems Command Fleet Logistics Center San Diego are spearheading a first-of-its-kind effort to create a 5G smart warehouse.

Col. Michael Driscoll, Director of Future Operations, Nellis Air Force Base
With 5G, we can disaggregate C2 and make it agile, mobile and difficult to target.”

Col. Michael Driscoll Director of Future Operations, Nellis Air Force Base

The project aims to improve efficiency and ­effectiveness to better serve the squadrons assigned to the large base, a collection of eight Navy installations.

“There have been huge transformations in warehousing and logistics. We’re taking lessons learned from industry, like Amazon, FedEx and UPS,” says Kevin Sorrell, technical lead for the 5G smart warehouse at Naval Base Coronado.

Plans for the warehouse include implementing ­technology such as autonomous forklifts and other vehicles for picking and ­pulling items, as well as ­automated machine vision or augmented reality to help find assets quickly for human users.

“Many features baked into 5G make it useful for large, premises-specific ­applications,” Rappaport says. “For example, 5G has introduced the concept of network slicing, which allows a site like a Navy base or a factory to utilize a specific ‘slice’ of the radio resources dedicated to specific needs. It leads to ultrareliable, low-latency operations.”

This level of speed and reliability indicates to Sorrell that the 5G smart warehouse initiative is a worthwhile investment.

“There is really high ROI because of the improvements in operational efficiency,” he says. “It’s also a great test bed for other opportunities beyond warehousing.”

EXPLORE: What will 5G networks do for federal agencies?

What About 6G?

Although 5G is available right now, most experts say that 6G is right around the corner. So is 5G worth the investment?

Rappaport says that 6G will be in wide use around the 2030-2032 time frame. 6G, like 5G, will require a greater density of small towers using lower power to provide a reliable signal.

In the meantime, he doesn’t expect that infrastructure and coverage ranges will differ much for the next 15 to 20 years.

Photography by Joe Buglewicz