This Little-Used Area of the Electromagnetic Spectrum Might Be the Future of Battlefield Communications

By Patrick Tucker

December 18, 2019

You may not have heard of millimeter waves, but they will play a critical role in tomorrow’s super fast and capable 5G wireless internet environment. Because the 30-to-300-gigahertz band has only recently been harnessed for use by new antennae and other technology, bandwidth is plentiful. Because millimeter waves are inherently directional, they make signals hard to intercept. All this has drawn the attention of the U.S. Army, which may put them to use for swarming drones, rapid maneuvering, and a battlefield Internet of Things.

Commercial telephone companies are pouring money into research into mm waves, but that isn’t likely to generate military-grade communications technology that can stand up to the harshest enemy jamming. So the Army has hired various wireless technology companies to look into hardening commercial 5G networking equipment. 

Among these firms chosen for phase one of the mmWave for Army Tactical Communications program is InterDigital, company officials told Defense One. The company is expected to make an announcement on Thursday. 

The assumption when they’re developing in a commercial standard is that they’re operating in a safe space” because the FCC or other regulatory bodies can enforce laws to prevent jamming, etc., said InterDigital director of engineering William Lawton. “Obviously that’s not the case for the military.”

The Army is looking to “take advantage of a lot of the research, including research dollars being put into the commercial cellular technology, and basically harden it for military use,” he said.  

That’s where the service’s mm-wave project comes in. 

Phase one will focus on defining the architecture for millimeter-wave networks that offer  multi-gigabit-per-second links across hundreds of meters, “the range of maybe a convoy of vehicles,” said Lawton. 

Other applications might be data centers and peer-to-peer networks. 

Could be maybe on-soldier; could be back on a base,” said Lawton.

But the stakes are a lot higher than a single soldier. In a fast-moving confrontation between great powers, mm waves might just help determine victory or defeat. Military planners expect that warfare against a technically advanced peer adversary, such as China or Russia, will be incredibly fast and deadly. Enemy forces will require a lot less time to target their adversaries’ critical elements. That means the ability to move quickly, and especially command and control nodes, will be essential.

An April paper from IEEE notes that a typical modern command post, even one set up relatively quickly, still requires connecting cables, erecting towers, installing servers, etc. Such posts take “a platoon (roughly 30 soldiers) a day to install or dismantle. This is far too slow for the command post of the future that requires agile deployment and even continuously mobile operation,” the authors write. 

A high capacity, high bandwidth, wireless [Local Area Network] will eliminate the cables and connections and would allow for quick installation/dismantling, and for headquarters elements to be dispersed, thus decreasing their visual footprint and vulnerability to attack,” they note. Cutting the time necessary to stand up or dismantle command hubs will allow the military to make such nodes more mobile, allowing for faster-coordinated attacks and forcing the adversary to make faster, and presumably more predictable, decisions. 

The military will also rely much more on distributed drone swarms and autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles. These may be called on to do actual fighting on the front lines. But as military leaders are keen to remind audiences, their preference is to keep human control in the loop, especially when it comes to weapons, (in keeping with long-established military doctrine.) That means that tomorrow’s drone swarms and self-driving truck convoys will have to be able to communicate at high rates of speed and data with one another and potentially with operators afar; mm waves, hardened against adversaries, will be critical there as well. 

By Patrick Tucker // Patrick Tucker is technology editor for Defense One. He’s also the author of The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? (Current, 2014). Previously, Tucker was deputy editor for The Futurist for nine years. Tucker has written about emerging technology in Slate, The Sun, MIT Technology Review, Wilson Quarterly, The American Legion Magazine, BBC News Magazine, Utne Reader, and elsewhere.

December 18, 2019