As Department Defense looks to find the right mix of bespoke and openly available technologies to support 5G adoption and FutureG initiatives, officials put an emphasis on open architecture Thursday.

At the TechNet Cyber conference presented by the Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association International in Baltimore, leaders from the Pentagon discussed capabilities for public, private and hybrid networks. Officials acknowledged there’s a natural appetite for the most exclusive, secure networks in the national security space. And sometimes there is no wireless network infrastructure available in remote warfighting locations far from population centers.

So as the services determine appetite for private networks that offer more control over information sharing, the DoD is guiding them to use open radio access networks, or ORAN, said Juan Ramírez, the director of the 5G Cross-Functional Team at DoD.

“I think what industry wants to hear is there’s actually going to be requirements that come out that ... necessitate an open RAN architecture,” he said at the conference. “So you’ll start to see those come out in the next couple of years, pending budgets.”

Certainly, private networks aren’t the only way to go. In fact, sometimes that’s not the best solution, said Lt. Col. Benjamin Pimentel, who leads the Camp Pendleton 5G experiment for Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations.

“Think about when we deploy in a theater,” he said. “A lot of countries that we go to or locations that we go to already have roads and bridges, and it’d be silly to then go and build my own private roads and my own private bridges separate and apart from that to get where I need to go. If those roads and bridges meet my transportation requirement, and they’re not going to fall under the weight of a ‘seven ton,’ we’re going to drive over it.”

But, somewhere like the first island chain, for example, may not have adequate coverage to put up sensors for long-range precision fires. In cases like those, he said, it would make more sense for units to bring private capabilities.

Given China’s rising aggression and U.S. efforts to deter it in the Taiwan Strait, what Pimentel described is the type of environment where current threats seem to colocate.

Regardless, to ensure there is connectivity wherever the need is, Ramirez said the department is looking at ORANs, which allow multiple vendors to operate as one network and provide more flexibility to scale.

ORAN is something the DoD has been pushing aggressively to explore as it simultaneously journeys toward more standard 5G adoption on military installations and “smart bases.”

Ramirez said the department is hopeful it will get additional support from Congress via future defense spending bills that will backup forthcoming requirements with dollars.

The Pentagon’s 2024 budget requested $143 billion in research, developing and testing of emerging technologies including 5G, but also artificial intelligence. Much of the spending in recent years has been for prototyping, and though the Office of the Secretary of Defense has the lion’s share, Ramirez said his office is offering direction to the services for them to budget for 5G.

“We think that pursuing ideas like [ORAN] advanced by the ORAN Alliance all the way to fully open-source code ... provides the feature velocity the DoD needs and the ability to innovate quickly,” said Pimentel.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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