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5G in Military Applications - Reshaping Our Security Approach

The adoption of 5G in the mobile carrier market is in full swing, as you can tell by the advertising you see daily from competing service providers. But, unlike previous 3G and 4G technologies, 5G has gained a lot of interest in the defense community due to its unique features that make it perfect for everything from logistics to the battlefield communications infrastructure.

The DoD sees both potential but also a national security risk in 5G networks in its 2020 “Department of Defense (DoD) 5G Strategy”:

  • “5G is a critical strategic technology: those nations that master advanced communications technologies and ubiquitous connectivity will have a long-term economic and military advantage.”
  • “Because 5G networks will transport massive amounts of sensitive personal, corporate, and government information, they are particularly attractive targets for potential U.S. adversaries. With persistent access to an ally’s 5G network, an adversary could potentially engage in widespread espionage, threaten the privacy and rights of citizens globally, prepare the operational environment to provide an advantage in armed conflict, conduct information operations, and/or disrupt critical infrastructure. “

In order to accelerate the development and deployment of 5G infrastructure while ensuring it is “robust, protected, resilient, and reliable”, the DoD invested $600 million into 5G testbeds and experimentation across 7 military sites. And the US military is not alone – worldwide there is a push toward Electronic Warfare, which in the US is best described in the US DoD Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program. It addresses the DoD’s concern that today’s Command and Control programs are not narrow enough, too complex, and too siloed in their overall approach. JADC2’s purpose is to drive better information sharing and faster and more comprehensive response by building unifying networks, and combining applications and sensors from all military services. The DoD’s Joint Staff also designated the Air Force to lead the effort to “(1) rapidly understand the battlespace, (2) direct forces faster than the enemy, and (3) deliver synchronized combat effects across all domains.”

So why 5G?

5G has been purposely designed for massive machine-type communication to connect a wide variety of endpoints beyond just mobile phones. Any device can utilize this communications network, including wearable sensors, high-resolution imagery from drones, robotic devices such as autonomous vehicles, and swarms of drones to coordinate their flying pattern. 5G provides special military-friendly features, unlike 3G and 4G or WiFi:

  • Transmission speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G LTE. With significantly higher bandwidth and extremely low error rates, it allows data-intensive applications, such as video surveillance, to be transmitted at high resolution for applications such as augmented and virtual reality.
  • Low latency is key for faster response times and timely delivery of highly time-sensitive data, which is critical for unmanned airplane or swarm intelligence, creating decentralized, self-organized systems.
  • Supporting more devices allows for thousands of devices to communicate and share across a single network while quickly building up massive but dynamic networks.
  • Efficient energy usage allows for compact form factors for micro-drones or wearable sensors. It also allows for dynamically deploying unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to deploy 5G base stations or communications hubs flexibly and quickly, while constantly adjusting its position.
  • 5G can vary its cell sizes and power output to better adjust the coverage suitable to the use model. This is particularly important for small reconnaissance teams that want to go undetected but still be able to utilize wireless communications.

Most importantly, 5G includes an end-to-end security architecture that exceeds any previous wireless access technologies through a multi-layer approach. All user and control traffic are encrypted during transport, end-to-end across the network all the way to the endpoint or application. It also allows for additional overlay encryption. Building on concepts including Network Function Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN), this allows network slicing, isolating, and splitting the network into different virtual instances, depending on the services or devices used. Using concepts from Zero Trust, every device connected to the network requires automatic security embedded in every device configuration.

What does this mean for our network security monitoring approach?

With 5G virtualizing and encrypting every aspect of the delivery chain, from access to network transport to application delivery, the approaches designed for today’s environments are no longer sufficient. Monitoring applications must address two fundamental issues:

  • Operating in the more virtualized, software-defined environment
  • Dealing with end-to-end encryption – from the initial association with the network to the transport of every piece of data.

Monitoring in this environment is essential, especially when we introduce end-devices that that had not been traditionally connected to a network and pose a larger risk. This means that network security monitoring applications now need to become an integral part of the encryption delivery and need to be virtualized to deploy and operate in this environment where everything else is just software as well. On the analysis side, we need more relevant, event-specific information that allows analysts to determine the validity, severity, and impact of any newly detected event – to make faster, more informed decisions.

If you would like to read more, here is some recent media coverage on Axellio:

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