The advent of 5G technology is heralded as the glue that will enable the integration of emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) into military operations.

NATO militaries are shifting from a platforms-based defense to one revolving around systems. This would see long-term, multipurpose assets like tanks and aircraft carriers replaced by narrowly purposed, nimble, expendable, and data-informed capabilities fully integrated into the force structure. But the effective collection, sharing, and operational potential of data in the decision-making process will only be possible if 5G networks are advanced and resilient.

There is a problem here — 5G’s capacity to revolutionize conflict is still somewhat unknown. Discrepancies between NATO allies in their approaches to 5G procurement and operational frameworks risk creating interoperability gaps in fulfilling its military potential. Nevertheless, some individual allies are beginning important national efforts that can serve as a basis for broader coordination around military 5G.

For example, Latvia’s progress in 5G military testing might serve as a basis for developing principles that NATO allies can use to strengthen the resilience and capacity of their military 5G networks. These include:

  • prioritizing resilience through redundancy
  • broadband-spectrum sharing
  • enhancing interoperability, and
  • industrial and regulatory collaboration.

In December, Latvia unveiled Europe’s first 5G military testing site at Ādaži Military Base, which allows Latvian and NATO forces to test, uncover and resolve security vulnerabilities in the network. This site enables deeper integration into defense systems and provides alliance members with “testing grounds” for innovative 5G applications. The Ādaži base can also offer lessons to other NATO members as they develop their national 5G capabilities for military use, including the possibilities of 5G in autonomous systems and Joint-All Domain Command and Control (JADC2), the U.S. program to connect all military and space sensors in a single network. Continued, joint testing is the most important way to refine the possibilities of 5G in future warfare characterized by autonomous systems, data, algorithms, and JADC2.

These advancements, however, pale in comparison to the 5G developments by adversarial states. China is a pioneer, having already developed 5G unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) applications for package deliveries, aerial photographs, and emergency communications. Western states must develop their 5G defense capabilities strategically to remain competitive and make up for the lost time.

The dual-use functionality of 5G technology means that a broad range of actors including the military, security services, civil society, and private companies are integral to achieving resilience and effective implementation. Redundant structures and systems, especially between government and commercial enterprises, reduce the ability of malign actors to immobilize those systems by creating multiple networks for operation. This redundancy also integrates civil sector network defense, bolstering the potential for a whole-of-society response to threats.

There is some debate on how best to allocate the broadband spectrum between governments and civil society, which determines how insulated 5G defense systems are from attacks. For NATO defenses, dividing spectrum access between governments and civil society might prove to be more effective than allowing dual access to the same spectrum portions. NATO should take advantage of its prerogative as a multinational coordinating body to facilitate spectrum use standardization across the alliance.

Enhancing interoperability is perhaps the most important factor for 5G military application and will depend on alliance-wide standardization. As 5G allows for more connectivity and flexibility, as well as higher data volumes, it also enables greater dynamism and fluidity of information flows within defense systems. This can increase warning times, speed of decision-making, and response times in crisis and pre-crisis scenarios. The alliance should capitalize on this unprecedented potential for interconnectedness to increase resilience and expand the redundancy of systems.

Finally, national governments must leverage Western technology and regulatory diplomacy to create international standards for 5G technology to ensure its governance is not monopolized by adversaries. This would also go a long way to enhancing interoperability amongst allies and instilling network resilience at the heart of 5G development. The formalization of regulatory frameworks for 5G was recently emphasized in a UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, which labeled it essential if NATO members hope to retain technological influence. Thus, international regulatory agreements will become increasingly important to ensure a democratic digital domain not dominated by autocratic powers.

Integrating these factors into 5G technology development better positions NATO to realize the potential of EDTs and to improve the resilience of these systems to disruption. This should be reflected in the short-term in NATO allies’ approach to building 5G digital backbones. The alliance also cannot lose sight of the risks associated with military 5G implementation. Not only are temporary measures needed to implement 5G technology securely, but Western allies must have the long-term strategic foresight to lead the way in the development of 6G and quantum technology, which will eventually replace 5G.

The recent NATO communique from the Brussels Summit promises meaningful contributions in this regard, via the civil-military Defense Innovation Accelerator and NATO Innovation Fund. Though it will be years before we can gauge the success of these measures, internal collaboration with industry experts across the private sector, as well as cross-border coordination with allies to outline governing and operational frameworks, will be essential.


Photo credit: Robynne Hu

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Lauren Speranza

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Jack Crawford

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Charles Mann

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July 8, 2021

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.