Hudson Institute

Exploiting the Fast-Follower Advantage

Making 5G the Ultimate Parts Bin and Adopting a Commercial-First Approach to Military Acquisition

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
Senior Fellow, Center for Defense Concepts and Technology
An UH-60 Blackhawk flies over the runway during a series of 5G avionics tests on March 2,
2022, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (US Air Force photo by Cynthia Griggs)

View PDF

Executive Summary

While frustrating for consumers, the slow maturation of commercial 5G networks in the United States could be a boon for the US Department of Defense (DoD), which can harvest, adapt, and influence 5G-related technologies as they emerge from commercial product pipelines for a variety of applications that extend well beyond cellular communications. By reversing its traditional role as a developer of new technology and instead becoming a customer, the DoD could better exploit the potential of 5G and leverage the private sector’s trillion-dollar investment in mobile connectivity.

Under the Joint Warfighting Concept’s approach of “expanded maneuver,” US military forces would disaggregate, reaggregate, and recompose to increase their adaptability and impose uncertainty on the opponent, enabled by interoperability and decision support tools from the DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative. Implementing expanded maneuver will require that JADC2 use computing to integrate a changing array of radios, radars, jammers, and RF detectors to deliver sensing and effects at scale as part of a fast-paced campaign. Mission systems like these have traditionally been the purview of specialized military contractors with the infrastructure and domain expertise to produce and deliver them as part of integrated solutions, like those of traditional commercial telecommunications providers. However, the modularity of commercial 5G’s building blocks could be harnessed to produce highly recomposable and adaptable military mission systems more cheaply than their highly integrated predecessors.

Microelectronics associated with 5G can offer unprecedented affordability and scale thanks to the convergence of decades of computing and networking advancements, driven by the largest market on the planet: about 9 billion mobile subscriptions and purchases of more than 1.3 billion phones annually, serviced by more than 6 million cellular base stations. The allure of selling to billions of customers drives self-reinforcing cycles of innovation and investment that dwarf those associated with military programs like the US Air Force’s potential fleet of 100 to 200 stealth bombers. 

This study explores how the DoD could harvest commercial 5G hardware and software for future electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) systems. A failure to do so will bring peril, as adversaries could acquire, assemble, and employ these same technologies. Perhaps most importantly, exploiting 5G’s commercial advancements could provide a template for how the US military should revise its requirements and research and development processes to reflect the government’s decreasing role in many areas of innovation and how it should become a customer—rather than a developer—of cutting-edge technologies.
Making 5G the Parts Bin for DoD EMS Operations

Most of the DoD’s current 5G-related efforts focus on similar communications use cases as the civilian sector. However, their inherent characteristics enable 5G networks to support a range of military EMS applications beyond communications such as radar, passive sensing, and jammers or other countermeasures. The DoD can pursue two main paths to harvest the technologies associated with 5G: 

•    Repurpose 5G radio access networks (RAN) and core networks for EMS operations beyond communications by adapting their software for resource allocation, virtualization, edge computing, and network management.
•    Disaggregate 5G RAN and user equipment hardware components and recompose them to support EMS operations, combined with adapted 5G software.

Because data in a 5G architecture is generally digitized outside the antenna, it can be moved, formatted, and analyzed by software whether it is a 5G message packet, a radar return, or a passive RF detection of an opponent’s radar. Commercial 5G service-based architectures use software functions to manage the flow of digital data and provide services such as managing warehouse robots. These software functions and services could be repurposed to support DoD EMS use cases.

Going further, adapting 5G microelectronics hardware could enable the DoD to achieve a wider range of waveforms, form factors, and power levels than is possible using existing 5G systems and modified 5G software as described above. The most straightforward method of adapting hardware would be to work with manufacturers to unlock features built into existing or planned equipment, such as radiofrequency systems on a chip (RFSOC), that the manufacturer has not yet made available to the public. However, beyond revealing these latent capabilities, the DoD could assemble almost every type of EMS system in its inventory by repurposing available 5G hardware, combined with either adapted commercial 5G or defense system software. 

Because of their generic nature, RFSOCs are multifunctional; they are able both to transmit as a radio, radar, or jammer and to detect signals like a passive sensor or radar receiver. User equipment such as mobile phones and tablets incorporate the same elements in their RF circuits as 5G RAN infrastructure, but with less size and complexity. By exploiting the diversity of 5G microelectronics and in some cases combining them with custom-built military components, DoD system developers could assemble transceivers capable of generating the power, frequencies, and waveforms suitable for sensing, jamming, or deception.

RF circuit components and processing associated with 5G user equipment can be repurposed for small form factor applications like uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs), uncrewed undersea vehicles (UUVs), or weapons. The proliferation and inherently multifunctional nature of commercial RFSOCs and other microelectronics allow them to be smaller and less expensive than military-specific systems capable of communications, sensing, and EW. 

In larger unmanned and manned platforms, US defense suppliers could use 5G RAN and core network hardware to augment or replace military-specific sensors and countermeasures. Modified 5G service-based architecture software, commercial 5G infrastructure (such as antennae), baseband units, and processors would fit on multi-mission ships or aircraft. Because they can operate with different frequencies and waveforms than those commonly employed by DoD systems, 5G-based sensors and countermeasures could increase the complexity of US force presentation and create more options for US commanders. 

In addition to being less expensive to buy and sustain than manned multi-mission platforms, unmanned systems also help the DoD pursue its goal of decision superiority. As envisioned by the DARPA Mosaic Warfare and Hudson Institute decision-centric warfare concepts and by the Air Force and Navy Next Generation Air Dominance programs, incorporating larger portions of less-expensive unmanned systems would enable the US military to compose a wider variety of force packages and implement a greater diversity of tactics, in turn reducing the ability of opponents to predict and prepare for US operations. Expanding the US unmanned portfolio would also enable calibrating the size and capability of force packages more finely to the tasks at hand, allowing a given set of military units to perform more missions and increase the scale of operations. Together, the adaptability and scale of US operations could allow forces to aggregate and disaggregate as part of the US Joint Warfighting Concept’s approach of expanded maneuver more easily.

Pursuing “Commercial-First” Acquisition 

Using commercial parts such as those from 5G will demand that the DoD shift from its top-down system development approach to one that solves pressing operational problems by building new systems from the bottom up using available technology. Adapting commercial microelectronics will require comprehensive assessment of operational needs, employment concepts, and technology opportunities. Commercial 5G hardware and software will lack some features often demanded in military EMS systems, such as radiation hardening, extremely wide frequency bands, or hardware-based cryptography. Commercial systems may also not perform as well for some use cases as custom-built military systems, and incorporating them into military platforms will incur costs. However, US forces can use new compositions and operational concepts to mitigate the limitations of commercial technology. 

The challenge for DoD R&D organizations and program managers attempting to reverse the DoD’s requirements and acquisition processes will be determining when a commercial technology like 5G software or hardware can support an acceptable use case—or combination of employment concept and system composition—that addresses a priority operational problem. These considerations create a tradespace between the cost of the prospective commercial technologies relative to custom-built technologies, the difficulty and cost of incorporating commercial technologies into the relevant system, and the degree to which prospective technologies enable a use case that addresses the military need. 

DoD acquisition professionals already perform assessments like these as part of a capabilities-based assessment (CBA) and analysis of alternatives (AoA), in which the CBA identifies the need for a new material solution and the AoA explores which solution is appropriate for the operational problem. However, CBAs usually do not consider commercial systems or technology that could be repurposed for the military mission, and AoAs assume an operational concept and force composition in which the new system will operate as well as the objective to be pursued by predicting potential future scenarios. By narrowing its options to dedicated military systems and fixing the use case and scenario in isolation from technology opportunities, the DoD acquisition process limits the ability of CBAs and AoAs to explore operational approaches that could allow a commercial technology to accomplish the objective. 

To become a retail customer of commercial technologies, CBAs and AoAs will need to assess a range of force compositions and tactics in which the prospective system could be employed to address the operational need. A different combination and orchestration of systems could allow the prospective new capability to achieve better performance using commercial 5G microelectronics. The Navy used a version of this approach in the Requirements Evaluation Team for its Constellation frigate program and is now employing it in defining the characteristics needed in its new DDG(X) destroyer. Emerging analytic tools could enable comprehensive analysis of the tradespace in relative or qualitative terms. 

One way to achieve this balance is for DoD program managers to work with commercial manufacturers so that the US military better understands features that are likely to be incorporated into future commercial chipsets and other components. Such cooperation could allow the DoD to shape future microelectronics designs so that they better support defense needs. This model would allow modified 5G software to unlock new capabilities without modifying the underlying microelectronics. 

Another approach to adapting 5G microelectronics hardware is to work with microelectronics companies that can assemble and package components into new SOCs or systems-in-package (SIPs). The DoD is pursuing this approach through its State-of-the-Art Heterogeneous Integrated Packaging (SHIP) program, in which new disaggregated, heterogeneously integrated circuit designs use chiplets that could be sourced from the commercial 5G industry and reassembled into new combinations. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

The emergence of 5G represents a watershed moment for the microelectronics industry and an excellent opportunity for reforming the DoD’s acquisition process. By enhancing telecommunications bandwidth and latency, 5G is prompting a rapid expansion of machine-to-machine and consumer applications and a concomitant explosion in the number and variety of mobile devices. To support the higher throughput and specialized services demanded by users, 5G infrastructure is also more virtualized than 4G LTE networks. Together, these trends make 5G a significant driver of future commercial microelectronics demand. 

The increasing availability and sophistication of leading-edge components from the 5G telecommunications industry and the DoD’s growing ability to employ zero-trust models suggest that the US military should increase its use of commercial microelectronics. But to harvest these technologies, the DoD will need to revise its requirements and acquisition processes to act like a retail customer. Instead of assessing its microelectronics needs in a vacuum and contracting development of custom solutions, the DoD will need to assess the commercial technologies available against the priority operational problems identified by commanders and the variety of use cases possible with existing and potential new systems. This tradespace is complicated but is fundamentally similar to that for many new commercial product developments that are analyzed by digital design and analysis tools. 

Commercial 5G microelectronics are most relevant to military EMS systems and operational concepts. Sensors, countermeasures, and communications will be essential to US forces as information and decision-making become more central to success in military operations. Proliferating these capabilities through the US military will require systems with low cost, scalability, and the ability to support a variety of form factors and architectures—characteristics that could be achieved via commercial components.
To enable the DoD to use 5G technologies as the parts bin for its transition toward decision-centric warfare, the government should pursue the following recommendations:

•    In future 5G demonstrations, shift the focus from direct uses of 5G that mirror commercial networks toward demonstrations that adapt 5G infrastructure and user equipment hardware and software for other EMS applications such as sensors and countermeasures. 
•    Establish a commercial-first path for acquisition of EMS systems such as radios, radars, passive RF sensors, and countermeasures that assesses commercially derived versus custom-built microelectronics in terms of cost, time to market, and proximity to military need across multiple use cases and force compositions.
•    Revise CBA and AoA instructions and study plans to demand that system developers include commercially available microelectronics components in their analysis and that they consider multiple use cases or combinations of employment concept and force composition.
•    Increase investment in efforts such as SHIP that build the industrial and organizational capacity needed to adapt commercial microelectronics for military use cases. 
•    Initiate or expand programs that collaborate with commercial microelectronics manufacturers to enable the DoD to unlock militarily useful features in existing microelectronics components or introduce new capabilities into future components that support military use cases. 

With the emergence of 5G, the DoD has an opportunity to leverage commercial private investment and effort in ways not seen since the industrial mobilization of World War II. Today’s 5G technology and the resulting availability of inexpensive, multifunctional, and sophisticated microelectronics could enable every DoD platform, weapon, and vehicle to be a networked sensor or countermeasure and could thereby empower DoD operational concepts that hinge on gaining decision-making advantages. Harvesting these technologies, however, will require the DoD to accept its role as a fast follower and act like a customer rather than a creator. 

More important than specific capabilities harvested from the 5G industry will be the changes this effort could produce in the way the DoD identifies requirements and builds new systems. By reversing the traditional approach of defining requirements in isolation and then pursuing custom-built solutions, the DoD could better leverage commercial technologies and benefit from being a fast follower. As other areas of commercial technology emerge, such as quantum and bioengineering, the US military will need to harvest commercial innovation or risk being left behind. 

View PDF