5G: digital infrastructure in the defence context

November 24, 2022

The digital transformation of 5G will have profound implications on how future military (and by proxy – cyber) conflicts are fought. They are likely to be more data-intense and utilize sophisticated computing, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Thus, the ongoing 5G development and implementation is a matter of national and NATO-wide security. New capabilities will, in turn, create more vulnerabilities. The war in Ukraine offers a glimpse of what this new military landscape might look like and what we can learn from it. 

Tomass Pildegovičs (Senior Expert, NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, further in the article referred to as NATO StratCom COE) in collaboration with Gundars Bergmanis-Korāts (Senior Expert,  NATO StratCom COE) and Adele Pužule (Legal Assistant, NATO StratCom COE) offered some insight on why this is such a pivotal topic in the current geopolitical situation. 

Assessing the risk of future networks

The implementation of 5G points towards an ever-deeper digitalization. Companies and governments will want to take advantage of this cutting-edge digital infrastructure. However, the question is: how to adopt 5G in a way that it becomes a technological boon rather than Achilles’ heel? NATO StratCom COE experts “are sure that digital platforms are and will be one of the key battlegrounds of future warfare.”

In this context, it is crucial to identify and mitigate any security concerns associated with the new network. According to NATO StratCom COE experts, it involves a pragmatic risk assessment “through the prism of regulations, resilience, and literacy”.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has lent particular importance and urgency to this topic. Baltic countries, Russia’s neighbors, have a good reason to be diligent about digital resilience. Back in 2007, Estonia experienced a serious cyber attack, which paralyzed the online services of the government, banks, and media outlets. This led the government to implement considerable cyber defence measures. 

With the Kremlin’s rhetoric becoming more aggressive and our services and communications becoming more digitalized, the potential risk scenarios are likely to multiply. 

Communication infrastructure – lessons from Ukraine

According to NATO StratCom COE experts, the war in Ukraine represents an important moment in the global development of 5G. We have seen increasing efforts in fostering collaboration between governments and the private sector. Before the war, Russia was able to kickstart its 5G development thanks to the infrastructure provided by various Scandinavian companies. Now, these companies have pulled out of the country due to the sanctions. The relatively isolated position of Russia perhaps presents an “arms race” scenario – since they have announced a plan to skip the 5G phase altogether and implement a 6G network instead.

It remains to be seen to what extent these ambitions can be realized. Political isolation rarely presents a fertile ground for innovation. Will Russia find a way to acquire the resources which were previously provided by the West? Experts think that they potentially could be “left without cutting-edge technological innovation that, no doubt, could enhance their military capabilities.”

Communication infrastructure plays an important role in the ongoing conflict. Russian forces have been targeting Ukraine’s infrastructure as a form of psychological warfare, and these efforts have also had an impact on Ukraine’s operational capabilities. SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet initiative has been crucial in ensuring means of communication in times when the traditional infrastructure is unavailable. 

Russia has seized or destroyed a large number of telecommunication base stations and fiber-optic lines. In newly occupied areas, Russians often practice communication blackouts causing distress among the civilian population. On the other hand, Ukrainian have worked diligently to restore the critical infrastructure in the reclaimed territories.

Why is this such an important element of war? Access to reliable means of communication has a significant effect on morale in times of war. If someone can’t contact their relatives and obtain reliable news, this is going to have a detrimental effect on their morale, and they might be less inclined to resist the occupying forces. 

Clearly, both sides of the conflict realize the importance of network infrastructure. And this is also a key lesson for other countries observing the war – the resilience of critical network infrastructure is of the utmost importance. 

5G: bridging the gap

NATO StratCom COE experts offer a sobering view of the future network. We are likely to see rapid AI development, evolved digital communication platforms, and new digital universes. The defence sector will likely reap some of the dividends of the new infrastructure. However, we should prepare for a long journey and avoid “hype-driven expectations,’’ according to our experts.

The implementation of new technologies should go hand in hand with realistic risk assessment. There is also an element of trust, which has to be earned in democratic societies. The ultimate benchmark of 5G will be the question of whether it contributes to our collective resilience – will the new capabilities outweigh any potential risks? 

In principle, “all regions in the alliance must have equal capabilities and resilience to hold and maintain the technological edge over the adversary.” Latvia is in a good position to provide high-tech testing sites and personnel for developers and innovators. Back in 2020, Latvia launched the first 5G military test site in Europe. This year the test site was expanded to include two new standalone 5G networks provided by Nokia and Ericsson. This 5G testbed has been involved in various European research and development projects such as iMUGS, Sparta, 5G COMPAD, FAMOUS2, Comp4Drones, 5G Routes, including a recent 5G operational experiment, which tested AR/VR capabilities in the military field. 

From the NATO StratCom COE perspective, it’s important to discuss “How to bridge the gap of the digital divide, innovation, and technological capabilities across the EU region and NATO alliance.” In the upcoming 5G Techritory forum, Tomass Pildegovičs will talk about the role of 5G as a part of critical digital infrastructure and focus on why the development of such technologies is crucial in the defence context.

Join 5G Techritory 2022 on November 30, 11:10 – 11:50 (EET), Policy & Strategy stage, where Tomass Pildegovičs will participate in the panel discussion on 5G in Defence alongside experts from LMT, Nokia, and Spirent Communications.