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Research Question

  1. What have Russian experts determined regarding the military utility of 5G?

The fifth-generation (5G) technology standard for broadband cellular communications is expanding in Europe and will offer many more capabilities than the existing fourth generation long-term evolution standard. With this increase in capabilities comes opportunities for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to integrate advanced technologies and improved communications into its operations. However, these opportunities come with inherent risks. The authors describe the 5G rollout in Europe, characterize what Russian experts have determined regarding the military utility of 5G, and identify DoD opportunities and risks of using the 5G ecosystem in a future Baltics scenario.

The research involved literature and document reviews of the 5G rollout and threats to 5G in countries of interest. The authors also conducted a literature review of primary sources, including Russian-language sources, to assess Russian thoughts on 5G. They developed a smart logistics vignette to evaluate the benefits of 5G using a consensus of 11 subject-matter experts (SMEs) on three aspects of 5G across a variety of tasks during the vignette: operational impact of 5G, resilience with 5G, and uniqueness of 5G. Using these reviews, assessments, and SME consensus, the authors identified the risks and benefits of the military's use of 5G in the European theater.

Key Findings

The trajectory of 5G in Russia is uncertain because of the hesitation of the Russian military to give up its rights to the contested 3.4 to 3.8 GHz band

  • Russia's 5G regulatory problems pose a challenge for such countries as Lithuania that are trying to cultivate 5G networks. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) governments feel the need to abide by international agreements governing spectrum usage in peacetime, and NATO militaries cannot take advantage of 5G infrastructure that remains unbuilt because of regulatory conflicts with the Russians.
  • If 5G technologies play some role in a conflict with Russia, Russia will attempt to counter 5G technologies in accordance with Russia's well-cultivated, holistic approach to radioelectronic struggle (radioelektronnaia bor'ba) or electronic warfare (EW). If these EW measures prove effective, the electromagnetic spectrum will potentially be a nonpermissive environment for 5G technologies during a conflict with Russia.

Three main functions emerged as 5G benefits

  • The ability to track thousands of items using smart tags can help track items and equipment, and those data can be used in artificial intelligence or maintenance algorithms to enhance operations.
  • Very high communications speeds over short distances with high-band 5G can help with downloading large sensor data sets (for example, to transfer data between operators and autonomous vehicles).
  • Remote 5G communications can be used for command and control and allow for increased coordination among multinational forces and infrastructure.

Recommendations

  • Focus future 5G research on smart tags, high-band 5G, remote communications, and unmanned communications.
  • Expand 5G research into different operational scenarios and vignettes, such as urban operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery, and special forces operations.
  • Develop mitigation approaches for countering Russian exploitation and denial of 5G.
  • Track frequency developments across U.S. allies and their borders with Russia.
  • Assess potential interoperability issues across providers and countries.
  • Work with European allies to create a common roadmap of military uses of 5G.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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