Oct. 9, 2020 | By Rachel S. Cohen
Wireless networking initiatives are spreading across the Defense Department as the military embraces 5G technology.
On Oct. 8, the Pentagon awarded $600 million in contracts to several companies that will test out uses of fifth-generation wireless networks at military installations nationwide. Those projects advance alongside the Air Force’s rollout of 5G at its own bases.
Telecommunications giants such as AT&T and Verizon promise that 5G will be faster and more reliable than earlier cellular and computer connections to the Internet. The military wants to leverage those advances so it can digitize its offices and flightlines, ditch manual processes, and offer troops the same connectivity they get at home or in the private sector.
“The Department of Defense is at the forefront of cutting-edge 5G testing and experimentation, which will strengthen our nation’s warfighting capabilities as well as U.S. economic competitiveness in this critical field,” Michael Kratsios, acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said in an Oct. 8 release. “Today’s announcement demonstrates the department’s commitment to exploring the vast potential applications and dual-use opportunities that can be built upon next-generation networks.”
Three bases tapped for 5G experiments host Air Force units: Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and Hill Air Force Base, Utah. Naval Base San Diego, Calif., and Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Ga., are participating as well.
As previously reported, the JBLM project will look at using 5G to enable augmented and virtual reality equipment for mission planning, training, and operations. DOD tapped GBL System Corp., AT&T, Oceus Networks, and Booz Allen Hamilton for that effort.
At Nellis, Airmen will try using 5G to connect disaggregated command-and-control systems that would need to deploy quickly in an emergency. AT&T is the sole contractor in that experiment.
Hill will partner with Nokia, General Dynamics, Booz Allen, Key Bridge Wireless, Shared Spectrum Company, and Ericsson to prove whether Air Force radars can share the electromagnetic spectrum with 5G cellular devices.
The Marines are exploring the idea of a “smart warehouse” with digital inventory tools in partnership with Federated Wireless, General Electric, KPMG, and SRC. And the Navy is working with AT&T, GE, Vectrus Mission Solutions, and Deloitte Consulting on a similar warehouse project as well as 5G-connected drones, biometrics devices, cameras, and more.
DOD said this is the first round of 5G experimentation contracts, and it will announce work at more sites in the future.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has slowed the Air Force’s plan to bring wireless connectivity to 10 bases in the southeast U.S. Those installations include Moody Air Force Base, Ga.; Robins Air Force Base, Ga.; Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga.; Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.; Joint Base Charleston, S.C.; Shaw Air Force Base, S.C.; McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C.; Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.; Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn.; and Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind.
Two bases have received “Long-Term Evolution” (LTE) capabilities, or an upgraded version of earlier wireless connectivity so far, a Department of the Air Force spokesman told Air Force Magazine. The service said last year that Verizon would install 5G infrastructure on or near Air Force and Space Force property under 25-year leases that cost the Air Force nothing.
“As bases are now opening and allowing visitors, work is restarting,” he said. “For the two bases that initially received the LTE capability, there has been a significant quality-of-life enhancement for the base population. As additional small cells are installed, as well as adding 5G capabilities, this will increase cellular capabilities in the workspaces.”
The Air Force is splitting its rollout into regions, and plans to pick a telecommunications company in December to bring 5G to bases in the Midwest and Northwest. It will also solicit 5G firms for bases in Alaska by the end of the year, with more agreements to come in 2021.
As part of a separate push to outsource information technology services to private companies, the Air Force wants AT&T and Microsoft to bring 5G to seven bases—Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.; Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Hurlburt Field, Fla.; Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.; and Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.—by 2022. The other armed forces have similar initiatives at their own bases as well.
“Once fielded, we anticipate 5G networks to enable a transformative level of speed and connectivity that will connect more devices and accelerate digital transformation for the [Department of the Air Force] and families at these installations,” the spokesman said.
Installations that will fall under the next two 5G leasing agreements include:
Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.
Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
Cavalier Air Force Station, N.D.
Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo.
Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.
F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.
Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.
Hill Air Force Base, Utah
Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.
Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.
Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station, Minn.
Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
Offutt Air Force Base, Neb.
Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.
U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.
Clear Air Force Station, Alaska
Eareckson Air Station, Alaska
Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska
Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
King Salmon Air Force Station, Alaska