When the military goes to war, it brings its communications infrastructure with it. From the drums and fifes of early US history through to the radios and electronic communications of the 20th- and 21st-century warfare, how and where troops fight in the field is determined by the ability for troops in the field to hear and follow orders. Which is why, when it comes to communications systems built for 5G, the US Navy wants to be able to deploy such networks on the go.

At the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, near San Diego, the Navy is “looking at being able to generate private 5G networks for forward operating bases,” Benjamin Cohen, director of the NavalX Southern California TechBridg, told DefenseOne at a conference on 5G Futures held July 28.

Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) are set up during a war, often but not always in a counter-insurgency conflict, where they host troops and vehicles near the expected fighting, allowing the military to rapidly respond to threats. FOBs serve as a crucial node for both launching and defending against attacks, making communication and data sharing vital. As the military collects more and more data—from sensor-rich vehicles and surveillance towers placed at bases—wirelessly collecting and transmitting that data becomes essential to fighting a data-rich kind of war.

This decade, the military expects 5G networks to become a crucial part of this planned fight, which is why the military is working with 5G connections at existing bases, and why it plans to bring these networks straight into battle if necessary.

“We’re putting 5G nodes onto fully electric autonomous vehicles which can then provide enough power for us to create these closed 5G networks for us to operate on,” said Cohen. “That data bandwidth, that pipe if you will, is so important for us to be able to share the data going back and forth. Because we’ve added more autonomous systems and more sensors to our tool kit, so we need to be able to generate these 5G networks and allow for the passage of all this data in a timely fashion.”

Vast data is a potential resource if it can be shared and processed quickly. There are a variety of ways to manage the kind of data-flow from such intensive collection. One, explored in the self-driving car space, is “edge computing,” in which computers near the sensor, like in an autonomous car, process most of the information immediately, and then transmit only already-processed data wirelessly. (The opposite of edge computing is having that same processing take place in the cloud.)

Another way is expanding the reach and availability of existing data networks, especially with the high bandwidth limits of 5G. This is an approach the Army is exploring as well as the Navy, where outfitting bases with 5G networks can facilitate the kind of interconnection systems would normally get in a 5G-rich environment. Creating this kind of 5G infrastructure would allow the military to take advantage of an “internet of things” network, where sensors on towers, robots, and vehicles can collect and share data with each other and with human operators on computers or tablets, both at and away from base.

Today, troops have access to the Android Team Awareness Kit, a tablet or smartphone software that can display and transfer important information right in the field. Internet-connected devices are only as useful as their connections are strong, so having continued network connection in the field is especially important. 

Sharing and collecting data between relevant forces in the field is a powerful promise of a military acting and responding where needed, with relevant information shared and used as soon as it can be transmitted. Maintaining that connectivity requires nodes, from the stable cellular networks of a fortified barracks, to the quickly installed networks of a forward operating base, to forces in the field. A network-connecting node might come from a special data relay installed on the back of a truck

Or this might come from an ad-hoc network, carried on the back of electronic autonomous vehicles, that arrive alongside the marines as they first enter a country or a battlefield. 

“The Navy’s SoCal Tech Bridge at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is experimenting with new 5G networks carried on the back of autonomous vehicles, so that when future robo-amphibs storm the beach, they can bring their own 5G network with them,” writes DefenseOne.

Relying on such networks carries risk. If the signal is intercepted and understood, a hostile force can anticipate American troop movements. If the signal is seen and jammed, US forces could have to revert to pre-5G means of communication. But the potential of arriving, network in tow, and transmitting data to the rest of the military before battle is even joined is immense. Still, the military isn’t planning on going in without examining how exactly it might fall short.

“What happens if the system is compromised? If it’s intended to be that mesh network for forward operating bases, what happens if it’s compromised, what are the impacts on the marines and sailors operating there, what happens to the sensor-to-shooter network that we’re really concerned about,” said Cohen.