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01 28 2021

NATO tech Agency explores the potential of 5G for the Alliance

The next generation of mobile technology, 5G, is on the horizon – and NATO is mapping what that will mean for the Alliance.

That's why the NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency is studying this technology and exploring its potential for military applications. NCI Agency experts are contributing to several lines of effort that are aiming to assess the technology as it comes closer to arriving in civilian life.

NATO tech Agency explores the potential of 5G for the Alliance

"5G technology, as a pervasive emerging and disruptive technology, will dominate the civil telecommunications landscape in the future and will be the backbone of societies," said Antonio Calderon, the NCI Agency's Acting Chief Technology Officer. "NATO needs to maintain its technological edge, so that NATO decision-makers stay informed and make the right policy and strategic decisions in the future."

A small team of talented scientists, engineers and architects in the Agency are looking at 5G technology and developing initial 5G-based concepts in support of military operations. Their work also supports NATO's Consultation, Command and Control (C3) Board Programme of Work, and Allied Command Transformation's Innovation Programme of Work.

Assessing 5G

"5G is introducing ground-breaking technologies and features in many areas that may provide benefits to military users," said Luis Bastos, a Principal Scientist at the NCI Agency.

5G, for example, could enable greater use of many other emerging and disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data analytics and the Internet of Things.

"History can teach us a lot about taking 5G and emerging and disruptive technologies seriously," said Calderon, who mentioned the technological leap from analogue to digital as an example. "That's why we have already been investing our efforts in evaluating 5G's applicability for NATO."

For the last two years, the NCI Agency has conducted technical assessments to evaluate the potential of 5G for military applications.

"The long-term result of those assessments is still to be determined. Currently, we are looking at the potential of the technology for military use and what technical, conceptual and architectural challenges need to be addressed to enable it. However, we may conclude that, for instance, 5G is too complex or too vulnerable to be used in some military scenarios and only be appropriate for a subset," Bastos said.

Agency experts are looking at how 5G technology and systems could provide benefits or connectivity to NATO when forces deploy. Experts are also exploring how 5G can facilitate interoperability in multinational scenarios. And as the Agency also provides communications and information systems to the NATO enterprise, its experts are also looking at how 5G technologies can affect those systems, or how 5G can be leveraged in that context.

Cyber security experts from the Agency, who protect NATO's networks, are also looking at the security aspects of 5G.

NCI Agency experts published a working paper last year on the subject, which identified significant potential in 5G technologies to enhance capabilities in different military domains.

The paper identified four areas in particular where 5G could enhance NATO operations:

  1. Deployable Communications and Information Systems (CIS) for expeditionary operations;

  2. Tactical operations;

  3. Maritime operations;

  4. Static communications.

The next step? Discuss approaches to 5G with NATO Nations, industry and academia.

In December 2020, the NCI Agency hosted a virtual workshop on "Transforming Allied Forces through 5G." More than 450 representatives from NATO, Nations, industry and academia registered for the event.

Representatives from several Nations provided their perspectives during the workshop.

"Military applications of 5G is not a wishful thinking anymore!" Calderon said. "Over the two-day event we saw that some NATO and Partner Nations are conducting real tangible work in this particular 5G-for-military arena."

The future

The work to prepare NATO for 5G continues.

Agency experts will conduct more assessments throughout the year to support the C3 Board and Allied Command Transformation. These assessments will inform NATO as it develops policy, and potentially military capabilities, around 5G.

In support of Allied Command Transformation, Agency experts will also be assessing two potential applications of 5G in NATO operations: deployable CIS and maritime communications. The eventual goal is to conduct proof-of-concept testing for the two scenarios.

Several NATO and Partner Nations are exploring the potential to establish a combined effort on 5G, a multinational project facilitated by the Agency. For this purpose, NCI Agency experts will conduct regular technical sessions with the first 5G Workshop's participants, and plan to organize a second workshop before the Summer.

"There is potential for a multinational project on 5G, as Nations have many common requirements but 5G-based military capabilities are not off-the-shelf, and necessitate an informed dialogue and close collaboration between nations," said Eric Lièvre, Chief of Portfolio, Programme and Project Management at the NCI Agency.

Bringing those NATO actors together to develop a common solution could be extremely beneficial, Calderon added.

As an example, Calderon mentioned maritime communications for two different Nations. Those systems would require special equipment to be deployed on ships.

"If two Nations develop different concepts, there might not be sufficient business for military communications industry to implement such concepts, and those nationally-developed solutions may not be interoperable," Calderon said.

But if the Agency develops concepts and architectures the Nations can agree to use, then the commercial market is incentivized to create a solution that is perfect for NATO use.

"The Agency also manages many multinational projects and partnerships today with NATO and the Nations in the area of smart defence. We are willing to bring our expertise to the Nations to establish and contribute to a 5G-related multinational project," Lièvre said.

NCI Agency experts are nationally, commercially and technologically unbiased. As they work for NATO, they do not favour technology from one Nation or one company, but look at all technology across the Nations to assess how it might benefit NATO.

"In 5G, there are common elements that make technological and economical sense to be worked together with a 'central hub' and neutral entity like the Agency, to create critical mass, avoid duplication, and address the common interests of Nations," Calderon said.