For defense tactical communications, low probability of interception, resilience to jamming, and reliability of communications are paramount to mission success. Tactical radios have evolved over decades to support these warfighter requirements and today’s radios are more resilient, reliable, and secure – as well as smaller, lighter, and more flexible than ever.
Yet maintaining tactical advantage requires the ongoing adoption of next-generation technologies – faster than adversaries. For tactical radios, military forces must select and add to a broad range of proven and emerging interoperable components designed to continually advance communication capabilities in rugged, congested, and contested environments.
The Department of Defense (DoD) is also eager to explore the promise and power of fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, for tactical communications. Compared to 4G LTE technologies, 5G is expected to significantly increase the speed, reduce the latency, and improve the reliability of wireless communications. Though defense-ready 5G capabilities are still in development, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) recently completed the 5G NR (New Radio) system design for 3GPP Release 17 (R17), the third installment of the global 5G standard. Release 17 is being celebrated for including capabilities essential to tactical communications, including sidelink relaying operation for mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs).
With 3GPP R17 chipsets now becoming available, defense leaders can start to examine 5G for tactical communications technologies such as tactical radios that can use 5G in addition to legacy capabilities. How can defense leaders keep up with the innovations and complexities of the increasingly software-driven tactical radios? What steps are required to adopt 5G for tactical comms – before (and better than) near-peer adversaries?
What steps are required to adopt 5G for tactical comms – before (and better than) near-peer adversaries?
Keeping up with evolving tactical radio technologies
To stay ahead, military leaders are consistently fielding new radio technologies. As capability gaps are identified, innovations are developed, tested, and integrated to meet the need. A modular approach allows for tremendous flexibility. It also introduces complexity, as new and legacy technologies must be supported by devices built for longevity. Typically, radios are designed for a 5-to-10-year lifespan and their components must work reliably over that time period.
Tactical radio requirements include:
Reliability of mission-critical communications. Short, direct mission-critical voice and data communications must be reliably transmitted, received, and understood.
Low probability of interception. Adversaries are highly skilled with electronic eavesdropping and consistently attempt to intercept communications. Tactical radios and communication protocols are designed for security, to minimize enemy interception.
Resilience to jamming. On the leading edge of the battlefield, enemies routinely attempt radio frequency (RF) jamming. Warfighters rely on their devices being resilient to jamming and other hostile interference.
Flexible architecture. Tactical edge environments don’t have rigid network architectures, so forces create mesh networks and MANETs on demand to transmit and receive messages. It’s essential to have the flexibility of multiple communication paths to share messages and data on the battlefield – and to ensure communications get through.
Performance across a range of complex propagation environments. Radio waves are affected by topology, distance, movement, weather conditions, traffic congestion, and other variables. Warfighters rely on their mission-critical communications being sent and delivered regardless of the propagation environments in which they’re operating.
Backward compatibility. New technologies must work with legacy radios. That’s true today with 4G LTE and 3G and will be true when 5G is introduced into the mix.
As technology innovations are presented – and as 5G matures for tactical communications – it’s critical to develop a continuous cycle of development, testing, validation, and fielding of new radio technologies for battlefield advantage. This is powered by continuous integration, continuous delivery (and deployment) (CI/CD), and testing methodology, fostering continuous testing (CT). Field testing represents an insufficient approach since it will only cover a small subset of variables which are difficult to replicate day after day for repeated testing. Instead, a digital twin approach uniquely supports test and evaluation repeatability, scheduling flexibility, and reliable creation of complex environments. Once technologies are proven in the lab environment, defense teams can introduce them for field testing and/or deployment.
Reliable, robust testing of tactical radio hardware and software
A digital twin, such as Spirent’s 5G Network Digital Twin solutions, offers a software replica of the physical network built upon network emulation, traffic generation simulation, and test automation. Digital twins allow continuous testing, evaluation, and validation of devices and network technologies across unlimited configurations and use cases. They support vendor-agnostic testing of tactical radio hardware and software components for interoperability, performance, and security.
Digital twins model:
Complex propagation environments from both the transmitter and receiver sides
Effects that may interfere with communications, such as Doppler effects and delays common with airborne communications, reflections from atmospheric conditions, blockers from rugged terrains or buildings, as well as intentional jamming or other adversary interference
Signal to noise ratios for each contested, congested, and dynamic operating environment
Network topologies including mesh networks or MANETs that adapt on the fly
By recreating anticipated real-world environments in the lab, Spirent’s Digital Twin solutions support testing and evaluations across numerous tactical communication radio use cases. Results inform the development of near-term and evolving prototypes and protocols, purchasing decisions for available technologies, and validation of current and future solutions.
Our teams of defense and 5G mobile network technology experts partner with defense and technology organizations to reduce the risks associated with adopting newer technologies and configurations. We support the design and execution of robust, real-world, and next-gen tests and evaluations – so warfighters can better coordinate with their teams and safely stay one step ahead of adversaries on the battlefield.
Learn more about Spirent solutions for Government.