As part of the Department of Defense’s next-generation network and communications effort, officials are embracing the “operate through” approach, a common concept for relying on infrastructure already in place, such as existing bridges, roads or rail systems. The department aims to apply the concept to communications infrastructure and operate over fifth-generation wireless network communications, or 5G, commercial infrastructure.
In such a 5G environment, the potential for cloud computing over a cellular network or 5G hardware is great, according to Daniel Massey, program leader Operate Through, 5G-to-Next G Initiative, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Firm, Department of Defence.
“It’s that ability to take the cloud to the edge, rather than having to go back and get to the cloud,” Massey says. “It’s the ability to say, ‘Hey, I don’t need to have a backhaul connection.’ Instead, some of that cloud computing can go with me, get to the brim, and that changes how I think about reliability.”
Of course, with this emerging 5G and later 6G capability, officials must address cybersecurity, scaling and other issues before they can reliably use commercial devices, networks and hardware for military use.
“The Department of Defense has the ability to build a bridge across any river, anywhere in the world,” Massey says. “That is an important ability that we will always have. But that’s not the way we usually start surgery. Where possible, we want to work via current roads, current bridges, current railway lines. That’s standard. Now let’s apply that same idea to the communications infrastructure. I’d like to have the ability to work over commercial 5G infrastructure, when it makes sense for DoD to do it. But we also need to think about what it means to operate through the existing commercial infrastructure.”
In addition to the “Operate Through” program of the Department of Defense’s 5G-to-Next G initiative, the “Accelerate” effort includes the installation of 5G infrastructure at US military bases – with 5G installed so far on about 16 facilities — and “Innovate,” which explores the form of sixth-generation or wireless communications, or 6G, and beyond, Massey says.
“There’s a great component called ‘Accelerate’, which puts 5G on DoD bases across the country,” he explains. “We have another part of the 5G initiative called ‘Innovate’ that looks at what’s happening in 6G and beyond. Really looking forward to the future Gs. I have the part in the middle, ‘Operate Through’.”
Massey notes that with the massive investments being made in 5G around the world, the Department of Defense needs to make sure it’s aligned with that commercial infrastructure, whether it’s using carrier networks or a US military-owned or privately limited one. network that operates on equipment that comes from a standard commercial supplier.
“I don’t want to compete with that,” the program leader suggests. “I want to make use of that where possible. Our big goal is to say we’re on the same page where 5G communications go in terms of standards, in terms of the ability to use off-the-shelf hardware, and the ability to use the occasional of commercial infrastructure deployed at a tremendous pace around the world. I want to have all those options. That means I want to have systems that meet standards such as the 3GPP standards that drive 5G.”
Under this type of commercial 5G infrastructure, the presentation of cloud computing and services may also look different, Massey emphasizes. †[It] not only uses the cloud in the traditional sense, but pushes that cloud all the way to the edge,” he notes. “Why is that important to DoD? It is important for a number of reasons. One of them, of course, is latency. It’s simple physics, speed of light transmission, that sort of thing. The closer I get to the edge, the lower I can lower the latency.”
With much lower latency, cloud computing over 5G could change the thinking of the US military about operations on the tactical side. “That cloud latency at the edge is going to be really important,” he stresses. “It’s something we really need to be able to leverage from DoD’s point of view.”
In addition, the 5G infrastructure will push more of that cloud potential to previously disconnected environments, Massey continues.
“For example, I [was recently] in San Diego talking to our partners at AFRICOM [U.S. Africa Command],” he shares. “AFRICOM is a great example of an AOR [area of responsibility] where backhaul to the cloud may not be as fast and reliable as you might expect. So if I could push some of that edge computing all the way to the tower itself, all the way to the 5G radio part, that opens up some possibilities. That allows me to move some of the more intensive compute power from small devices to edge compute servers. It really gives me that cool opportunity to do more on the edge.”
While Massey was unable to go into detail about specific examples of the military’s use of cloud and edge computing with 5G – given the security concerns – he emphasizes the potential of that powerful computing for tactical operations.
“Now imagine you have a very powerful computer, pushed very close to the edge, so your latency has gone down and your reliability and the productivity of your backup connectivity have gone up,” says the program leader. “That gives you a number of interesting use cases.”
Massey offers that end users can expect similar cloud functionality over 5G at the edge that they currently experience in on-premise or hybrid cloud platforms, although it is still early to have such availability.
“That’s part of the promise of 5G,” he quotes. “This is in several states of deployment. I think it is clear that the 5G edge is not at the same level as the well-known cloud providers at the moment, but it will get there. There are places where it is quite possible already. And I would say not just for desktop computers, but think supercomputers and servers that come with me to the edge.”
It may not necessarily be traditional cloud providers like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure that deliver cloud platforms or services to the 5G edge, Massey continues.
“The very interesting question is, will the carrier offer that?” asks the program leader. “How are the cloud providers and 5G carriers going to merge? How would the services? [be offered]† Whoever it is, we’re going to have some pretty impressive edge computing.”
There must be cybersecurity in place to protect the 5G-related cloud, including a zero-trust architecture, Massey adds. “I would just like to add that, especially for working over commercial infrastructure, whether it’s commercial hardware or if it’s the entire 5G commercial carrier network, zero trust is becoming increasingly important.”
In addition, the intention is to leverage edge cloud and 5G outside the continental United States (CONUS). “Operate Through looks way beyond that and it’s probably more like CONUS than CONUS,” he offers. “How can we operate anywhere in the world via commercial 5G. And when the Department of Defense says anywhere in the world, we usually mean more than Texas, California, Georgia, Hawaii. It’s amazing that this is happening in those 16 CONUS bases, but Operate Through also wants to operate all over the world. It’s much stronger than that.
“From my perspective, the two main benefits are [of 5G for cloud] are the latency and the reliability or accessibility,” says Massey. “Operating in a CONUS environment, the cloud is there. But if I move to different regions, operating somewhere in a corner of the world, cloud reliability, cloud access can be a little weaker. But if the cloud can go with me, that’s the second big piece. And that could be greater than the latency.”