Defense operations are increasingly complex, with forces and technologies spread across miles and missions. To achieve military advantage, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is collaborating with industry to adopt and adapt commercial technologies – especially computing and communication innovations. 5G wireless technology is a compelling example. It was developed as a commercial platform, but the DoD is now involved with standards bodies and directing research efforts to harness the power and promise of 5G for military use. “5G aims to not only surpass 4G network capabilities, but meet and exceed 4G's goals for general speeds, latency and density,” states the DoD in its 5G Strategy Implementation Plan.
5G architecture is exceptionally flexible and defense organizations are investigating the vast potential of the increasingly software-driven 5G core networks. What are the network options? How well can 5G core network features such as network slicing support multiple simultaneous use cases? How can 5G core networks be optimally deployed to ensure security, performance, and resilience meet rigorous defense requirements to protect warfighters?
Four considerations for defense 5G core networks
Research is well underway to inform fundamental decisions about designing and deploying 5G core networks for defense use. Four key considerations:
Private or shared infrastructure. Traditionally, defense operations created and managed fully private networks. By exerting complete control, the DoD ensures security requirements are met for a range of missions. Use cases will continue where military forces opt for a fully private 5G network. However, today’s 4G LTE and 5G commercial networks offer compelling coverage and require less defense infrastructure than legacy network solutions. Sometimes, in a home or “friendly” location, defense forces may opt for a hybrid solution to deliver the best outcome – where defense forces secure the endpoints and utilize the local infrastructure. As 5G technologies and infrastructure mature, defense teams may increasingly rely on private and hybrid options.
Network slices. 5G introduces network slicing, where a core network is used to establish numerous “slices” – each with its own security, performance, and quality characteristics suited to specific operational needs. How can a single core be used for multiple use cases such as autonomous vehicles, sensors for shooter connectivity, head-mounted displays for high-resolution video feeds, and telemedicine? Same core, different slices. Slices are configured and prioritized for relevant classified or unclassified communications requirements and key performance indicators for capacity and throughput, reliability and latency, and scale of connectivity.
Deployment models. Because a 5G core network is disaggregated, defense teams can distribute parts of a core network out to the edge, providing additional capability for tactical operations. For example, when signaling reliability is critical for secure communications, signaling elements may be moved closer to the warfighter. For high-definition video use cases, moving part of the network for data processing closer to the users may eliminate a need to back-haul to a central network, a move to help ensure video speed and quality.
Hosting choices. The DoD is evaluating options for hosting the 5G core on commercial hardware or cloud infrastructure, to leverage the advantages of rapid deployment and scalable infrastructure. As networks become more cloud-oriented, developing a private cloud has been a natural consideration. Even gaining access to a public cloud – with sufficient security – could be an advantage for harnessing rapid 5G and cloud technology advancements.
For defense core networks, 5G introduces immense flexibility. Before the DoD adopts this emerging next-generation technology, research teams are working to determine the best options for optimal performance. They are also – and essentially – aiming to prove out the levels of security and resilience of their use cases.
Discovering, defining, and selecting 5G core network options
Since the inception of 5G, Spirent’s strategy for 5G security involves including security in every business conversation from the outset and to work with trusted vendors across all categories. Building security from the beginning, rather than bolt it on later is key. The DoD is aligned with this approach. From the Department of Defense 5G Strategy Implementation Plan: “Many times, after the systems have been built and deployed, it becomes cost prohibitive to mitigate certain classes of vulnerabilities. Because of this, security testing and vulnerability detection must be implemented during development and throughout the system lifecycle.”
By design, 5G is more secure than previous generations. But defense adoption means the technology is being deployed well beyond the commercial use cases that guided its earliest days, into dynamic and complex threat environments. Defense teams are eager to validate the security and resilience of 5G core networks. Then it will be easier to prototype, test, and optimize the network for their range of use cases.
The value of digital twins
Collaborative defense-national-security-commercial-academic research teams are actively evaluating 5G core networking technologies with a focus on security, interoperability, and use case application. Testing is near-impossible in the real world, as established and emerging 5G technologies continue to advance and the number and complexity of use cases continue to accelerate. Digital twins, though, can recreate real-world conditions in the lab, to test and evaluate prototypes – then guide development and configurations for security, reliability, and performance.
Spirent’s 5G Network Digital Twin solutions provide an end-to-end 5G test network built upon network emulation, traffic generation, and test automation. Continuous testing, evaluation, and optimization helps ensure that 5G core network technologies function in the lab and, more importantly, that they will perform as needed when deployed. Digital twins accurately recreate the complex effects of massive traffic, cyberattacks, outages, and other interference, supporting the in-lab testing across a range of network configurations and defense use cases at scale.
Using digital twins for testing and evaluation helps defense teams to discover, define, and select 5G core network technologies and configurations for their private and public networks; numerous network slicing scenarios; deployment models to meet the highest priority network need; and hosting options that work for each mission. With an end-to-end network digital twin, defense leaders can test any or all parts of the network.
Spirent has unmatched telecommunications testing and evaluation experience, with more than 1,800 engagements across the 5G ecosystem. For more than 25 years, we have supported organizations in getting their networks validated, tested, and deployed; their devices validated; and their security proven. Our team of defense experts know how to guide testing at scale, with realism – for sunny and cloudy day scenarios, to support research teams in creating, configuring, and validating solutions for operational use. Spirent’s Digital Twin solutions support robust and flexible testing of 5G and 4G core networks, so defense leaders can continue to develop, configure, and ultimately deploy 5G core networks that meet the security, resilience, and performance standards of today and tomorrow.
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