On March 5, the New York Times quoted Lt. Yevgeny Yarantsev, a Ukrainian officer leading his troops in Kyiv against Russian forces.

Yarantsev told the Times that his soldiers “were more comfortable being able to garrison in buildings than in fields or forests.”

“I’ve noticed something about war,” he said, according to the Times. “Soldiers want to be somewhere where cell phones work and where there is internet.”

A “5G in Space” panel at the Satellite 2022 conference in Washington, D.C., on March 23 suggested that 5G from space may help the U.S. military operate anywhere, allow the dispersion of tactical operations centers, and help prevent adversaries from interfering with or shutting down U.S. military communications.

DoD’s “Operate Through” initiative under the Directorate for Defense Research and Engineering seeks industry help in U.S. military forces being able to use different networks for 5G.

“The Army Corps of Engineers can build a bridge across a river anywhere in the world, but that is not typically where we start operationally,” Daniel Massey, program lead in the Directorate of Defense Research and Engineering for the Operate Through effort under DoD’s “5G to NextG Initiative,” told the “5G in Space” panel on March 23. “We don’t go in and say, ‘First we need to build a road and rail infrastructure, a bridge infrastructure.’ We try to leverage what’s in place. So what about comms?”

The December, 2020 DoD 5G strategy implementation plan laid out four categories of network infrastructure under the “Operate Through” concept.

“In the first and least challenging category, DoD must be able to conduct sustained operations on the existing U.S. telecommunications infrastructure,” the plan said. “In the second category, DoD operations in coalition partner countries must be able to operate through the coalition partner’s national telecommunication infrastructure. In both the U.S. and coalition examples, long term bases and spontaneous operations both could benefit from access to a nation’s existing telecommunications infrastructure.”

“In a third and more challenging scenario, DoD may need to operate over ‘gray zone’ network infrastructure that is influenced or even controlled by organizations that are not compatible with DoD mission objectives,” per the plan. “Finally, DoD operates in contested areas. In all four environments (U.S., coalition, gray, and contested), use of the native 5G infrastructure can expand and enhance military options across the full range of military operations.”

“Operate Through” seeks industry, “zero trust” communications solutions that address three environments: a friendly or unfriendly “black box” network in which military forces are users on the edge of the network; military forces bringing forward their own network; or a hybrid approach of the other two environments.

“That soldier in the field, that 19-year-old, is not used to being away from their phone for more than an hour so we want to make sure we have access to that connectivity in a terrestrial or non-terrestrial way,” Massey said.

Non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) are on DoD’s wish list for possible future conflicts in potentially communications-compromised, far-flung locations, such as U.S. Africa Command and Indo-Pacific Command.

The National Security Technology Accelerator on March 21 issued two new Other Transaction Agreement (OTA) pre-solicitations for a “Misty Night” end-device threat warning and identification system and a “Gray Summer” network core-based threat warning and identification system.

“The DoD seeks tools that can be added at the Core Network to reduce the risk of exploitation throughout the 5G system, by either internal Mobile Network Operator (MNO) network assets, peer networks (e.g., 3rd party or visitor networks) and/or rogue User Equipment (UE) devices that are operating on the network,” per the OTA for Gray Summer. “While this initiative is focused on 5G technology, it is important to recognize and acknowledge the proliferation of Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G system deployments for the foreseeable future. Since the NSA architecture utilizes a 4G/LTE Core (aka, Enhanced Packet Core or EPC) in conjunction with 4G and 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) types, it is imperative that the resulting solutions can also operate effectively on 4G/LTE systems.”

The big challenges ahead for U.S. military terrestrial and space-based 5G are cybersecurity and reducing possible interference among systems through allowing them to use different bands and parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Software is key for spectrum sharing. For example, the planned OneWeb low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation will use the Ku-band, traditionally used by geostationary (GEO) satellites, but software is to allow spectrum deconfliction.

“The magic is software,” said Rajeev Gopal, the vice president of Hughes Network Systems‘ [SATS] defense and intelligence systems division. “If you look at it from a software perspective, most of the satellites, most of these towers, we know their position, even if they’re moving so you can put the routes in software so you can positively share the spectrum without interfering.”

Crucial to future 5G efforts will be “making sure you can roam, whether it’s a terrestrial network into a space-based network into somebody else’s space-based network, across bands, across orbits” and “not having five terminals, each performing one mission,” Don Claussen, the vice president of business development at Intelsat General Communications LLC told the March 23 panel.

At the military small unit level, easing the provision of voice communications over small, handheld devices will likely be key.
“At the edge what’s more important in the fight is the voice capability,” said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jeth Rey, the director of Army Futures Command’s network cross-functional team. “When you have troops in contact, they depend heavily on the radio that’s on their hip. If we’re gonna go to the cell phone as an end device, I want to know, ‘How do we embed voice capability?’ Collaboration is gonna be needed when you’re under close fire in combat.”

Claussen said that to allow such voice communications for units on the move, “you’ve got to be able to take advantage of all constellations [in] LEO, MEO, and GEO so that you can lower latency first.”

“Second is the edge device,” he said. “I think a lot in the industry are not going to want to hear that we’re moving to 3GPP [5G] standards because the chip sets are produced in mass quantities, and they’re cheaper so it’s gonna drive down the cost of the edge terminal so now we can proliferate those end quantities to the masses and ensure that they can communicate the way they need to. The challenge is gonna be, ‘How do I create a device that’s small enough that can be moved around, that can move across bands and across orbits?'”

Rey said that “we have to reduce complexity at the transport layer.”

“The example I use is before, we would drive down I-95 and had to pay tolls, and the traffic was backed up,” he said. “That’s how our transport [layer] is today. But today when you go down I-95, you have EZ Pass, pictures of your license plate, and data is moving back and forth. Nobody’s holding up traffic. That’s what we need. That’s attribute-based access control. That’s identity management in defense. That’s using transport really in the manner that we should use it.”