26 August 2019

Can 5G be the technological solution for defence?

A fully connected society, everywhere and all the time. This is the goal of 5G, the new generation mobile phone system, which will have vastly higher flexibility and capacity than today’s system. FOI has investigated the advantages and disadvantages of the 5G standard in military applications.

A soldier

Photo: Kim Svensson/Combat Camera.

About every ten years, a new generation mobile phone system is launched. 4G arrived in 2010 and now it’s time for 5G. The goal of the new system is to provide wireless Internet connectivity to in principle every societal sector.

Compared to 4G, the technology used in 5G can confer greater capacity, more robust communication and more users – qualities that are not only sought after by the mobile phone industry but also by the Swedish Armed Forces. At the request of the Armed Forces and FMV, the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, FOI has therefore investigated how 5G technology could be used in military communication. The question is whether 5G is the solution to future challenges in information transfer, interference tolerance and spectrum scarcity.

“5G is much more flexible than earlier generations of mobile phone systems and is going to be able to support numerous types of services that have different data rates, delays and range. It makes possible a large variety of applications that are intended for civilian use, but that may also be useful for the military,” says Erik Axell, senior scientist in radio communications, at FOI.

More and new base stations

Only certain parts of the 5G standard are ready today. Only in March, 2020, will the standard fulfil the requirements set by the International Telecommunications Union, ITU. Besides new communications technologies, 5G is also driving the development of new components that may be interesting for the Armed Forces. The infrastructure is also being expanded, through the addition of numerous new base stations, which is likely to make the mobile phone system less vulnerable.

“Our research deals with seeing exactly where and how 5G technology can be used in military contexts,” says deputy research director Börje Asp. “One option is that the Armed Forces buys its own restricted 5G system, with its own base stations. Or, they could lease the services of one or more operators who custom-design an isolated function for military purposes within the civilian net. A third option is to make the most of technologies that are designed to 5G standards in a purely military system.”

Susceptible to interference

Just as it is important to explore the possibilities that come with 5G technology, it is vital to investigate its weaknesses and risks. Precisely as it was with previous generations of telephony systems, the new technology is going to require access to satellite-based navigation and positioning systems. According to FOI’s researchers, this implies that the system may be susceptible to interference and deception.

“The flexibility built into the 5G system makes it possible, for example, to dispatch swarms of connected and battery-powered sensors over large areas and remain active for long periods. But this is where a number of challenging security aspects appear, regarding protection of user information and signalling,” says Börje Asp, and concludes:

“We see our research as a journey where we learn as much as possible, so that we can assess the possibilities and risks involved in the eventual use of the 5G system within the Armed Forces.”