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We're One Step Closer to 5G for Defense Tactical Comms. Are You Ready?


Deploying next-generation technologies faster than adversaries is crucial for battlefield advantage. The latest 5G wireless technology standard release includes features essential to defense tactical communications – prompting exploration of 5G mission-critical use cases. Learn how defense leaders can optimize tactical communications to integrate 5G capabilities into tomorrow’s next-gen networks.

Deploying next-generation technologies and techniques faster than adversaries is crucial for battlefield advantage. That’s one reason defense leaders have prioritized their exploration of the power and promise of 5G wireless technologies. Research and development efforts are well underway to support use cases such as 5G-powered smart bases, smart warehouses, and augmented reality/virtual reality troop training. Now, the latest global 5G standard release includes features essential to defense tactical communications – prompting exploration of 5G mission-critical communication use cases, as well.

What’s happening with 5G that supports defense tactical communications? How can defense leaders optimize today’s tactical communications while preparing to integrate 5G capabilities into the mix? How will they know whether – or when – 5G tactical communications are secure, resilient, and reliable enough to deploy to the field?

5G is evolving to support tactical comms

Historically, wireless technologies evolved to meet the needs of commercial organizations. 3G, 4G and 5G were all developed and advanced to support a network model where calls are handled by base stations. As a caller roams, calls are handed from one base station to the next, depending on proximity and signal strength.

That model doesn’t work for defense tactical communications which rely heavily on peer-to-peer connections. A warfighter on the ground may connect to a base station – as well as to ground vehicles, aircraft, satellites and/or other warfighters – to relay messages. Within this mobile ad hoc network (MANET), each wireless node can function as a sender, a receiver, or a router to relay messages across the decentralized, randomly configured nodes.

Now that the U.S. and foreign governments have committed to adopting 5G, standards bodies are planning the rigorous security and performance requirements of government and defense organizations.


Now that the U.S. and foreign governments have committed to adopting 5G, standards bodies are planning the rigorous security and performance requirements of government and defense organizations.

In March 2022, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) completed the system design for 3GPP Release 17, the third installment of the global 5G standard. With the milestone Release 17, 5G took one giant step forward to support MANETs and tactical communications. Among other enhancements, expanded capabilities include sidelink relaying operation for device-to-device communications. With early Release 17 chipsets becoming available, the Department of Defense can start exploring the use of 5G with legacy tactical comms radios. The DOD can also start preparing for the eventual use of 5G for mission-critical battlefield communications.

3GPP development is a forward-looking process and the next release is already being scoped. Release 18 is anticipated to include even more capability for tactical communications when it’s finalized in late 2023/early 2024.

Optimizing today’s tactical comms, preparing for tomorrow’s 5G environment

The three essentials for tactical communications are: low probability of interception, resilience to jamming, and reliable communications that are clear and intelligible. Defense teams use any means necessary to get critical messages through – from hand-held devices and base stations to airplanes and satellites.

Yet the complex propagation environments are subject to high Doppler effects and delays. At the same time, devices for mission-critical communications are also in flux. On one hand, tactical radios are built for reliability; their components are expected to work as needed for a 5-to-10-year life span. On the other, new interoperable radio components offer defense teams a choice of capabilities – and complexities – in building radios for technical advantage. 3GPP R17 chipsets are yet one more technical advancement to explore.

While there’s a degree of urgency to adopt and optimize innovations for battlefield advantage, defense leaders first need to know their messages are as secure and reliable as possible.

It’s an ongoing dilemma. How are the advantages secured without placing warfighters at unnecessary risk? As 5G continues to evolve, that question extends to this one: How will defense leaders be sure when – or whether – to adopt 5G for tactical communications?

Testing tactical communications innovations at a controlled test range is one approach, but it’s not enough. A test range will only replicate a small subset of variables – which are difficult to replicate day after day for repeated testing. On-site testing is often expensive and difficult to schedule.

A digital twin, though, makes it possible to test and validate new technologies, techniques, concepts, and prototypes by recreating highly realistic field conditions in the lab.

Digital twin support for tactical Comm testing and evaluation

Digital twins, such as Spirent’s Network Digital Twin solutions, enable testing and evaluation that inform important decisions across the tactical communication chain.

Robust channel emulation capabilities model RF environments while comprehensive network emulation and traffic generation recreate network protocol messaging and traffic. Combined in a digital twin, these capabilities help defense leaders to evaluate existing technologies, optimize configurations and tactics, and validate solutions before (and after) they are deployed to the field.

  • MANET connections and configurations. Channel emulation recreates a range of real-world RF environments, including base station connectivity, peer-to-peer connections, V2X, mesh network topologies, and MANET connections. Our state-of-the-art channel emulator can introduce simulated Doppler effects due to mobility and potential interference on demand, so your repeated testing reveals performance under ideal and degraded conditions. Results inform topology configuration decisions as well as support RF radio development and purchasing decisions.

  • Device and network performance, security, and reliability. Tests reveal performance and reliability weaknesses and potential security vulnerabilities by evaluating devices and network functions in isolation and progressively adding additional elements until the full end-to-end system is emulated. Together with RF channel emulation, all aspects of a tactical communications use case can be validated and vetted in real-world conditions before field deployments.

  • Existing and emerging tactical radio technologies. By testing the interplay of new and emerging radio technologies across wireless platforms, defense teams can make the most of today’s legacy, 3G and 4G LTE technologies – and start to test 5G as new elements become available. As 5G becomes more viable for defense tactical comms, our digital twin solutions can support pre-deployment and ongoing validation of 5G technologies for the field.

Whether you’re optimizing today’s tactical communications or preparing for tomorrow’s integration of 5G-enabled advantages, Spirent’s 5G Network Digital Twin solutions support your preparation, adoption and ongoing validation. Our defense team understands the requirements and challenges of military tactical communications. We’re standing by to support the design and execution of tests and evaluations to facilitate your mission-critical communications decisions.

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Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas

Head of Market Strategy

Spirent is a global leader in automated test and assurance for the ICT industry and Stephen heads Spirents market strategy organization developing Spirents strategy, helping to define market positioning, future growth opportunities, and new innovative solutions. Stephen also leads Spirent’s strategic initiatives for 5G and future networks and represents Spirent on a number of Industry and Government advisory boards. With over 25 years’ experience in telecommunications Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with service providers, network equipment manufacturers and start-ups, helping them drive innovation and transformation.