Pentagon puts 5G at center of US military's communications future

The US military is working to build its own IoT platform to 'increase lethality.' According to a wide range of top Pentagon officials, 5G is at the center of the effort.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

December 18, 2020

7 Min Read
Pentagon puts 5G at center of US military's communications future

US military officials are in the early stages of developing a unified, comprehensive, interoperable wireless networking system that would basically connect everything owned and operated by the Pentagon.

Commanders envision the system connecting "sensors with shooters across all domains, commands and services." In military parlance, doing so would "increase lethality."

The system is called JADC2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control). And it's apparently going to run on 5G.

5G "can enhance something as simple as virtual reality training or as ambitious as the connectivity of systems for JADC2," said Mark Esper in September, according to National Defense, a publication run by the National Defense Industrial Association trade group. Esper is the former US Secretary of Defense, having been fired by President Trump last month.

Esper's views on 5G – that it's the linchpin to hold together the JADC2 system – appear to be widely held across the military. "The DoD CIO [Dana Deasy] has stated it plans to use 5G technologies to enable JADC2," wrote the Congressional Research Service (CRS) earlier this month. The publication serves as a nonpartisan information source for Congress.

Internet of military things

The breadth of the Pentagon's JADC2 vision cannot be overstated.

"Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) is the Department of Defense's (DoD's) concept to connect sensors from all of the military services – Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Space Force – into a single network," wrote the CRS, explaining that traditionally each branch of the US military operates its own communication network, and as a result they often can't communicate directly with each other.

Indeed, this is the exact problem – unearthed by communications problems among police, firefighters and others during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – that led to the creation of the FirstNet network for public-safety workers.

"JADC2 envisions providing a cloud-like environment for the joint force to share intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, transmitting across many communications networks, to enable faster decision making," CRS wrote. "JADC2 intends to enable commanders to make better decisions by collecting data from numerous sensors, processing the data using artificial intelligence algorithms to identify targets, then recommending the optimal weapon – both kinetic and nonkinetic (e.g., cyber or electronic weapons) – to engage the target."

To be clear, this is the goal of JADC2 – but it may take some work and some time to get there. According to the CRS, each branch of the military is now looking at how it might upgrade equipment that could be decades old in order to create some kind of unified network. That kind of upgrade project might sound worryingly familiar to veteran telecom companies that have lived through the 2G, 3G and 4G upgrade cycles.

Further, JADC2 may also face some internal friction – a situation that just about any large corporation may also find familiar. "DoD needs to clearly designate a lead service and compel the other services to follow that lead," Todd Harrison, a budget and space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Breaking Defense, a news publication that covers the US military. "The Space Force may be the most natural fit to lead JADC2 because so much of the comms already runs through space or is enabled by space."

The publication cited sources warning of "service rivalry" among the branches of the US military for control over the project, a situation that could slow the rollout of JADC2.

Top gunners

There are widespread indications that the Air Force is taking a lead in JADC2 with its Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) tests.

"The Air Force is ... leading the way with a number of 5G experiments that will assess spectrum sharing, improve aircraft mission readiness and enable air, space and cyberspace lethality," former Secretary of Defense Esper said in September.

"ABMS, which is the top modernization priority for the Department of the Air Force with a budget of $3.3 billion over five years, will be the backbone of a network-centric approach in partnership with all the services across the Department of Defense," the Air Force wrote in a recent release. "That broader effort is known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2)."

The Air Force has already conducted two major ABMS tests. The second stretched across a week in July and, according to the Air Force and the CRS, involved 70 industry teams, 65 government teams from every service including the Coast Guard, 35 military platforms, 30 geographic locations and four national test ranges. The test used ABMS to connect ships in the Black Sea with special operations forces and eight other NATO nations to stop a simulated Russian cruise missile "with a hypervelocity weapon."

Following the money

The Air Force recently awarded 27 companies with ABMS contracts. Importantly, as reported by Breaking Defense, each of those contracts includes a maximum $950 million ceiling, but the total approved budget tops out at $3.3 billion.

Companies scoring contracts include BAE Systems, Boeing, Dell Technologies, General Dynamics, L3Harris Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Palantir, Raytheon Technologies, Viasat and World Wide Technology.

Lockheed's appearance in the list is no surprise. After all, the company's new CEO, James Taiclet, is a former Air Force pilot who served a tour of duty in the Gulf War under the callsign "Cheetah23" and later became CEO of cell tower company American Tower. He was named Lockheed Martin's CEO in June with an ambitious plan to essentially use 5G to remote control up to three-quarters of all US military vehicles.

During a recent investor event, Taiclet explained why the high speeds and low latency of 5G might be useful to Air Force pilots.

"If I'm flying an F-35, I don't want to have my data transmitter on nonstop because that makes me a target," he said during a recent investor event, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "But if I've got 5G on the airplane, in a second, I can get a gigabit of data that can then give me my next mission leg. And I turn that off, again, within that second, and I can fly safely."

Already the Defense Department has awarded $600 million for 5G tests across several US military bases, including Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.

Finally, according to the CRS, the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) – legislation Trump is threatening to veto because he doesn't like Twitter censoring his lies – allocates around half a billion dollars to efforts related to JADC2.

Five Eyes and 6G

Perhaps all that spending is no surprise given the scope of JADC2. For example, some have argued it's not even restricted to only the US and only 5G.

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall said recently that it will be important to bring America's "five eyes" allies (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK) into the development of JADC2. "It is very unlikely the United States would do anything without allies and partners, and they will have their own sensors and systems that need to be accommodated," he suggested, according to the DoD.

And given the amount of time and energy that will be directed toward JADC2, it's possible that 5G technology could be eclipsed by other advancements. Indeed, work on 6G has already begun.

That's not lost on the military. Joseph Evans, the Defense Department's principal director for 5G, suggested that the agency will begin looking at 6G and even 7G, according to Breaking Defense.

"Does it increase lethality?" Crall, the Marine general, asked. "The answer should be yes. [JADC2] makes us more lethal. We're a warfighting organization. That's what this is designed to do."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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