Industry Perspective: 5G Can Drive the Automation of Military Networks

By Jeff Verrant

iStock illustration

5G technology holds great promise for future defense networks. Along with AI, cloud and cybersecurity, advancing the capabilities of command, control and communications systems is one of the four pillars of the Defense Department’s 2019 Digital Modernization Strategy.

With its support for both wireless and wired access, 5G has the potential to provide a ubiquitous access layer for defense operations. Its dynamic network slicing capabilities will play a key role in increasing the efficiency and security of the future defense network architecture.

To achieve end-to-end slicing will require the modernization of the Defense Department transport network, with automation playing a crucial role in supporting key features of 5G.

One of the most important aspects of 5G is its ability to provide “slices” for specific users and their applications, which have specific network requirements. For instance, video surveillance cameras need guaranteed high bandwidth, while drone control needs very short response times.

Each slice can be built to deliver the specific network performance required by each application. Typically, a defense network has many different classification levels, and slices can provide virtual network partitions that completely secure services with different classifications, even though all share the same physical infrastructure.

Slicing can be done with 4.9G/LTE networking, but not dynamically. With release 17 of the 5G standard — due to be completed mid-2022 — it will be possible to create end-to-end slices as missions are launched and delete them when completed, thus optimizing the use of resources such as spectrum, bandwidth and latency, as opposed to tying them up with services that are not being used.

Each slice can be quickly configured to support operational requirements.

There are a wide variety of use cases. On naval bases, 5G can provide video and haptic feedback to remote operators of cranes and gantries loading and unloading ships. It can give the precise location of vehicles and assets and track logistics operations. Ships can begin downloading data before they have docked using 5G for ship-to-shore data connectivity.

The improved bandwidth performance and extremely low response time of 5G enables the broader deployment of virtual and augmented reality indoors and outdoors, around facilities and in the field. This can enable multiple use cases, including training of personnel and real-time information sharing for improved situational awareness. It can also support high resolution (8K) video for tele-remote operation of vehicles and drones, and low-powered sensors for broad monitoring of environment, equipment and data for personnel in the field.

Ensuring the performance parameters of a specific end-to-end network slice isn’t simply a function of the 5G radio network, however. A slice is a virtual network that interconnects applications that run in the cloud with devices and users. Slice management must be able to interface with the radio, transport and core segments to provide the required level of performance across the whole network. Particularly, the underlying transport network must also ensure that the bandwidth and latency performance on the end-to-end link matches what the radio network demands.

With today’s transport architectures, this on-demand deployment of network resources across the IP, microwave, satellite and terrestrial and submarine optical networks isn’t possible because of the level of hands-on configuration that would have to occur. For instance, an end-to-end slice with today’s virtual private network technology would take hours or even days to configure.

Additionally, as the defense transport network grows, operational management issues grow too. Digital services that will run on a distributed cloud infrastructure will multiply, generating a huge amount of traffic and requiring the number and capacity of network nodes to also grow significantly. This will increase network complexity, creating operational challenges to guarantee the performance and reliability required by all these applications, and make manual configuration even more difficult.

In short, setting up an end-to-end slice across the various transport layers must be done in an automated way to communicate the performance requirements for a given slice to all the different nodes at each network layer and ensure the initial intent is realized end to end.

Once the slice is created and all the underlying network resources are aligned, there also needs to be constant measurement using telemetry data to ensure that each network layer is continuing to perform. If the performance falls below the service requirements, the network must be able to access new resources such as redundant circuits or new virtual processing resources to ensure that the mission can be executed.

Automating the network not only enables the support of on-demand services and slices, it drives degrees of efficiency for skill development as well, lowering the requirement for info-tech personnel to engage in complex network engineering.

It also lowers the total cost of operating, delivering, optimizing and assuring services.

As the digital defense architecture grows in complexity, defense organizations are beginning to recognize that the time has come to better understand and automate their transport network for 5G and the cloud era.

Jeff Verrant is director of defense and national security at Nokia North America.

Topics: Battlefield Communications

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