WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman, AT&T and Fujitsu said they successfully relayed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data and video using 5G technologies, a critical step toward advanced networking on the battlefield.
The demonstration, conducted at a previously undisclosed Northrop lab in California, tied together radios with the defense company’s data links, the telecommunications giant’s private 5G services and the Japanese IT firm’s open radio access network, or O-RAN.
The collaboration between all three, Northrop said in a statement Jan. 18, is meant to spur innovation and produce products that can benefit the U.S. Department of Defense, which has for years invested in the fifth generation of wireless technologies as a means to quickly share information, improve logistics, including at so-called smart warehouses, and support operations overseas.
“The phrase we tend to use is right information, right people, right time, right everything,” Tarun Soni, a Northrop fellow and chief engineer for communications and networking, told C4ISRNET. “Obviously, lots of people in industry, including us, are doing lots of things that are 5G.”
Fifth-generation wireless technology promises exponentially faster speeds and the ability to accommodate more and more-advanced devices compared with its predecessors. The technology also has its risks — additional pathways for digital intrusions, for example, and expensive infrastructure costs — and has yet to live up to the hype for many. The slow rollout and embrace of 5G is often blamed on disputes between industry and Congress, namely over the designation of space on public airwaves.
The Defense Department secured approximately $338 million for 5G and microelectronics in fiscal 2022. It sought $250 million for 2023, which began Oct. 1.
Word of the successful demo comes nearly one year after Northrop and AT&T announced they would jointly develop a “digital battle network” utilizing 5G to support the distribution of intel across military services and domains. The companies at the time said the endeavor would help bring to life the Pentagon’s multibillion-dollar Joint All-Domain Command and Control campaign.
“When you do 5G, you really have to learn how to do ecosystems, you have to learn how to do collaborations, partnerships,” Soni said. “There’s the near-term motivation, which is digital transformation in various forms. That includes using 5G on factory floors, et cetera. The harder lift, which is kind of where at least some of my energy is going, is the JADC2 space.”
The JADC2 concept envisions interconnected forces across land, air, sea, space and cyber. This seamless connectivity and constant contact, defense officials say, will help the U.S. maintain an edge on China and Russia.
Northrop and four other companies were in September selected by the Air Force to flesh out the Advanced Battle Management System, the service’s contribution to JADC2. Acting together, they are known as the ABMS Digital Infrastructure Consortium.
“It’s not just about moving packets from point A to point B,” Soni said. “It’s about all the things your cellphone has. If you think about your smartphone, it’s not just moving packets. It’s not just providing transport. It’s providing mobility, it’s providing app stores. It’s providing all kinds of other things.”
Northrop is the fourth largest defense company in the world when ranked by revenue, according to Defense News analysis.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.