Commercial media attention to 5G cellular wireless communications systems has grown steadily in recent months, in anticipation of a wireless communications network that will leave no stone unturned and possibly no citizen without a cellphone. But what does such a significant technological introduction as 5G, with its massive infrastructure building on top of existing 3G and 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) towers, mean to defense electronic technology?
How well will critical defense electronic systems, such as terrestrial radar and manpack portable radios, coexist with what promises to be the largest cellular wireless communications network ever built on Earth? Not to mention that future commercial vehicles will be driving by those 5G networks aided by advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), with their own radar signals bouncing from nearby signposts?
Military system designers, of course, will take advantage of available 5G hardware and software for current and future systems, benefiting from such features as fast response times and wide bandwidths that allow for, say, lightning-fast transmission and reception of images representing battlefield scenarios.
Perhaps the real question will be: Can all potential future 5G users coexist? Natural limiting factors for military communications systems, such as mountainous terrain and rainfall attenuation, will impact the effectiveness of 5G systems in all cases.
Achieving full performance of military 5G technologies with minimal interference from operating environments and other users will depend on creative computer software simulations. It will also require effective measurement strategies to predict the different operating scenarios that an almost “unlimited” number of 5G users, commercial and military, will face.
Military designers can take advantage of different, more ruggedized components and packaging than used in more cost-conscious commercial radios, and perhaps unique military nuances to the operating environment, such as portable, transportable 5G base stations that can be moved around as needed. But they will face the usual obstacles to overcome from opposing forces, such as high-power jamming signals. Because of the wide bandwidths covered by 5G systems, jammers will have to follow into the millimeter-wave range to jam close-range systems.
Whether for military or commercial users, 5G wireless networks will depend on higher-frequency signals, such as 28 GHz and beyond, traveling shorter distances, compared to 4G networks that operate with longer-wavelength, lower-frequency signals at typically 3.5 GHz and below. The consumption of bandwidth at lower frequencies has quickly limited the transmission speeds of 4G wireless networks to the Mb/s range. On the other hand, 5G system designers are hoping to reach transmission speeds of 1 Gb/s and beyond, albeit at shorter distances than 4G systems.
Military users will no doubt benefit from the available bandwidths and transmission speeds of 5G devices, along with the reduced lag times of those higher-frequency, millimeter-wave signals. As always, the problems will come from an adversary’s use of the same wireless communications technologies, which will be freely available to all.
Over-occupied bandwidth at lower frequencies was one of the motivating factors for extending 5G wireless communications to the millimeter-wave frequency range—some of those same 5G frequency bands may come into play in ADAS systems—or simply because of military and aerospace use of those same higher-frequency bands. The 5G spectrum landscape presents a complex map for system modelers, especially with the constant threat of jamming interruption and signal interception by adversaries. But the 5G rewards, for both military and civilian users, include almost instantaneous transmission and reception of enormous amounts of data, resulting in highly informed and educated users on both sides.