Use of 5G mobile data networks in tactical areas

(To Genesio Di Sabatino​*)
06/06/24

Tactical communications are military communications in which information, particularly orders and military intelligence are transmitted from a command, a person or placed on the battlefield, particularly during combat.

It includes any type of information transmission, whether verbal, written, visual or auditory, and can be sent in various forms.

  

"Next-generation telecommunications will affect every aspect of society, from transportation to healthcare, as well as our military operations.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg – Defense Ministers Meeting, Brussels, 25 October 2019

Evolution of mobile networks

In today's scenario, the adoption of 5G-SA networks (Stand Alone, i.e. native 5G and not hybridized with 4G) is essential to develop areas such as autonomous driving, augmented reality, industrial automation, M2M economy, telemedicine and in general for everything how much it needs to be constantly connected.

The increase in available bandwidth, the widespread coverage and the reduction in latency that the new standards are able to provide will increasingly shift data traffic towards mobile communication networks.

It is therefore not surprising that 5G has played a crucial role, even in geopolitical contexts, consequently underlining the importance of making these communication channels as secure and interoperable as possible.

The evolutions that the various versions of mobile networks bring with them are notable from a performance and functional point of view, indicating the ability to maintain complete adherence to present and future needs.

fig. 1 Average latency and data rate per device (user experience). Note how the values ​​improve by orders of magnitude between one specification and another

5G standard

It is interesting to note how the mobile radio communication standards used today have a strongly European genesis.

GSM, for example, was born as a European standard ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute) and ETSI itself played a key role in the birth of the 3GPP consortium.

ITU-R

The International Telecommunication Union is a United Nations agency specializing in defining digital communications technologies. The Radio Communication sector deals with radio communications.

Fig. 2 Evolution of requirements

3GPP

The Third Generation Partnership Project, initially promoted by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute), is a consortium that currently brings together various regional agencies worldwide.

Within these agencies there are also private Carriers and Vendors who actively participate in the drafting of the technical specifications of the relevant standards.

5G architecture

5G architectures are essentially developed on 3 levels where in the first we find the UE (User Equipment) which are nothing other than mobile devices compatible with 5G specifications.

Radio access is governed by the NG-RAN (Next Generation Radio Access Network) context, the third level, 5GC (5G core), contains exclusive peculiarities of 5G, while the RAN access part can be shared with already existing 4G implementations. All services are routed via IP protocol.

The requirements and specifications between previous standards and 5G vary at each level but remain complementary and integrateable across various functional layers. This makes possible a gradual transition between 4G and 5G and, theoretically, with the future 6G.

Functionally, it is the 5GC level that brings together the greatest architectural differences, while the NG-RAN part is responsible for guaranteeing the greater performance that the 5G standard promises.

5G SA vs NSA

With a view to a gradual and therefore more financially absorbable transition, Telcos are migrating from 4G to 5G by adopting a hybridization of the two standards.

Currently in Italy only 12% of the "called" 5G networks are SA (Stand Alone), i.e. completely structured according to 5G specifications and mostly dedicated to FWA (Fixed Wireless Access). The rest are structured networks such as 4G that adopt and integrate NG-RAN technologies within existing infrastructures (i.e. 5G Non Stand Alone).

fig.4 Example of a 5G-NSA architecture

Especially in the field of security this is a fundamental step, it is the 5G SA standard, in fact, which raises by design the levels of Authentication, Privacy, Confidentiality and Integrity of communications on mobile networks [7]

fig. 5 Example of a 5G-SA architecture

Private 5G

5G Mobile Private Networks (MPN) are those mobile networks whose access is dedicated to the exclusive use of a specific entity, including via dedicated infrastructures. It is the standard itself, in fact, that has foreseen this type of applications, also dividing the available bands, precisely to make this type of networks more efficient (lower bands in the spectrum guarantee greater penetration of obstacles).

Since they are networks inhibited from public access and therefore not shared, they can guarantee extremely high performance in terms of speed, latency and security.

fig.6 Example of a private 5G network

Benefits of applying 5G networks in tactical communications

As combat scenarios increase in complexity and adversaries become more sophisticated, the availability of effective military communications platforms is more crucial than ever. Many advances in wireless technologies originated from military communications. This is the case of frequency hopping in 2G mobile communication or direct sequence spread spectrum in 3G. Starting from 4G, however, wireless communications have continued to evolve independently (see the "public" role of ITU-R and 3GPP), without specifically considering the needs of military communications.

In this context, NATO and its Communications and Information Agency (NCIA) have conducted a preliminary assessment of 5G technologies and their potential for military applications, identifying four areas where 5G could be used:

  • Communication and information systems for shipping operations

  • Tactical operations

  • Maritime operations

  • Static communications

While the study does not directly map which emerging technologies might relate to these areas for different operational use cases, additional independent studies have been carried out to analyze the opportunities of 5G in military contexts.

The use of SDN (Software Defined Network) networks and the related NS (Network Slicing), peculiar to 5G, adaptively guarantee the quality of service (QoS) for data flows by optimizing the available bandwidth while providing segregation, flexibility and interoperability. These are characteristics that the new elements introduced in modern scenarios require. Response times between all actors must also be reduced to ensure safety and effectiveness, all of which the 5G specifications guarantee.

Main technological areas of application

Below is a brief description of technologies contextualized in military environments that would benefit from the adoption of modern mobile networks. We emphasize that this is not an exhaustive list.

  • IoT: IoT is a network of physical objects connected to other device systems to collect, store, and share data. The main needs are availability, scalability, power and security. All of this can be applied to Military IoT (MIOT) devices. MIOT applications include logistics to facilitate management and visibility of military equipment such as weapons, robots, drones and vehicles.

  • Wearable devices: These devices can operate at faster speeds with fewer interruptions and cover larger areas.

  • Tactile Internet: Adds a new dimension to human-machine interaction by enabling tactile feedback.

  • Trusted computing: This is a technology to avoid exposing information to the enemy.

  • Edge computing: This technology involves storing and processing data closer to the edge of a user's network and not through a centralized data center.

  • SDN (Software Defined Network) and NS (Network Slicing): in tactical fields these technologies allow the central management of networks with heterogeneous destinations, significantly increasing the global visibility of all communications involved in tactical operations.

Use Cases

Below are the main use cases that could benefit from 5G/6G technologies

CU 1: search, rescue and medical evacuation

The main operational task of the rescue is to locate, communicate and recover crews killed during combat and possible survivors. Wider bandwidths allow more information to be exchanged and in greater detail. IoT on the battlefield (IoBT), equipped with sensors capable of measuring, for example, heart rate or blood pressure guarantees the possibility to monitor the health of soldiers in real time and transmit this data directly to specialized medical centers and rescue teams. In this way, detection and support times can be reduced while also guaranteeing precise localization which is fundamental in this type of operation.

CU 2: virtualization of the classic voice service

Bringing with it the possibility of segregation, the use of essential communications services (push-to-talk), on-demand coverage and satellite backhaul can be segmented, isolated and limited. This means that, in the face of an enemy attack, not all segments of the network could be involved, increasing the resilience of these types of services.

CU 3: electronic warfare

This scenario refers to the use and exploitation of an enemy's electromagnetic spectrum by blocking or interfering with communications or the spectrum within which they are carried. By moving Trusted and Edge Computing closer to the end user, these environments can be made more secure and distributed.

CU 4: troop training

With the help of virtual reality devices it is possible to simulate a computer-recreated scenario that is very similar to the real one, so that soldiers can train in an environment with real equipment that they would use in their missions. Augmented reality can also help improve soldiers' ability to spot the enemy or even gain information from the battlefield. Trusted and Edge Computing, as well as Tactile and Tactical Internet, are the technologies needed to use virtual and augmented reality and require security and bandwidth capacity.

Challenges in adoption

The technology associated with 5G and future 6G networks represents a challenge for military communications. The new generations of mobile networks can help guarantee fundamental performance and functionality for the use of new technologies in tactical areas but without a complete vision and intermediation in the development of standards, as well as continuous checks on supply chains, it will not be possible to obtain the levels of sufficient security and control for what is, in fact, an open and interoperable standard.

Conclusions

It is quite clear that the increasing development and adoption of mobile networks will be a fundamental key to the development of new technologies as well as that the same technologies can offer a huge advantage in tactical operations. Bandwidth, flexibility, reduced latencies are just some of the essential aspects that 5G networks already offer today.

Convergence towards universal standards is also a trend that has always occurred in ICT fields and it would not be surprising if it continued in different fields.

Sources

​* Genesio Di Sabatino is a professional with over 20 years of experience in the ICT sector, specializing in cybersecurity, cloud infrastructure and networking. He participated in the creation of the network infrastructure for the 8 G2009 and collaborated for several years with the National Civil Protection. He was responsible for creating and managing infrastructures for leaders in national digital trust services such as PEC, Digital Signatures, SPID, acquiring skills in Digital Transaction Management and related GRC management. He currently holds the role of Head of Technology at BeDisruptive. His career is characterized by a strong passion for emerging technologies and solid experience in managing complex ICT infrastructures.