An increasing number of countries are establishing and implementing 5G infrastructures to take advantage of the increased responsiveness and agility inherent in the technology. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) should invest resources into 5G to ensure its logistics depots, trusted global supply chain, and joint force systems can operate on a secure 5G spectrum. This article will explore how 5G technology, in conjunction with appropriate physical and virtual infrastructure upgrades, can improve the DoD’s ability to quickly and efficiently provide materiel and commodity solutions while simultaneously enhancing the Joint Logistics Common Operating Picture (LCOP).
In the past decade, smartphone owners have become familiar with the power of 4G and 4G LTE mobile communication technology. The “G” in 4G represents the fourth generation of wireless mobile communication technology. Starting in the early 1980s, the first generation (1G) was released to provide basic voice services over bulky and expensive mobile phones. Progressively through subsequent decades, generations of mobile communication technologies have incrementally improved, providing new capabilities and functionalities that have changed how we do business, how we communicate, and how we access information.
In 2019, Verizon and AT&T launched 5G wireless technology in four U.S. cities. 5G technology promises to “revolutionize” society by exponentially increasing data transmission capacity, enabling low-latency data sharing and real-time collaboration on immense scales. For example, a 5G device on a 5G network will be able to download a two-hour movie in three to four seconds whereas a 4G LTE connected device would require six minutes for the same download.
Although engineers have been developing 5G standards for years, 5G implementation is still in its early stages and is projected to occur through the 2020s. Logisticians across the U.S. Armed Forces could gain tremendous efficiencies from employing 5G to increase access and use of quantities of data previously too burdensome to amalgamate and process. 5G networks can improve the Joint Logistics Enterprise (JLEnt) of the future by enabling the growth and implementation of three interrelated technologies: The Internet of Things (IoT), supply chain automation, and artificial intelligence (AI).
Capitalizing on 5G through IoT, Automation, and AI in Joint Logistics
“The Internet of Things is a network of physical objects that are digitally connected to sense, monitor, and interact within a company and between the company and its supply chain enabling agility, visibility, tracking, and information sharing to facilitate timely planning, control, and coordination of the supply chain processes.” Harnessing IoT technology can significantly improve the JLEnt by informing the LCOP while operating on 5G networks that can sustain IoT proliferation and device loads. Military logisticians can gain efficiencies via automated systems and AI for supply chain management. Automated guided vehicles (AGV), such as drones and forklifts operating in supply depots and warehouses, could collect and feed vast volumes of data to AI, leading to automatic reordering of supplies when stock objectives fall below a threshold. Logisticians could harness these data to conduct predictive analysis on what supplies will be needed, how many, and at what locations.
IoT in Inventory Management
Imagine having constant, real-time visibility of supplies in transit from the factory floor to the battlefield. Employing the IoT with 5G can make this a reality. The greater bandwidth [of 5G] can accommodate up to a million sensors within a square kilometer at speeds at least 10 times greater than anything else available. Small electronic tags with years of battery life can be affixed to items in the military stock system and communicate with a cloud-hosted tracking system. Logisticians can query the system at any time to determine the items’ real-time location. IoT will allow the reduction in the time between data capture and decision making that enables supply chains to react to changes in real time allowing levels of agility and responsiveness never experienced before.
Supply Chain Automation
The supply chain has three major segments. The first is the stocking of appropriate quantities of supplies within a distribution center. Second is the local movement of supplies within distribution centers, including to and from drop points for interfacing with delivery vehicles. The third is transportation of goods from the distribution center drop points to the end users. 5G, IoT, and AI technology can benefit all three segments.
For the items stocked in distribution centers, 5G combined with AGVs would enable rapid and precise inventories by scanning for electronic tags and continuously maintaining a cloud-hosted database. AVGs equipped with AI are able to plan their own movements based on warehouse layouts and humans, maximizing efficiencies of traversing the shortest paths and automatically keeping the inventory database current.
The retail giant Walmart provides an example of the benefits of AGVs in inventory management. Walmart moves a tremendous volume of inventory each year to stock 75 million distinct products and support 11,300 stores, globally. Walmart invests in cutting-edge technological research for inventory management, which Walmart credits to its success. In 2016, Walmart began researching and developing drones for its warehouses. The drones were designed for canvassing a distribution center, scanning and reporting when stock reached low levels or was not in predesignated storage locations. Moving forward, AGV applications enabled by 5G are likely to become the norm, providing efficiency and accuracy for large distribution centers.
Furthermore, 5G, when combined with the IoT, an automated supply chain, and AI, can enable Just-in-Time (JIT) logistics, a system in which logisticians can lower stock levels while still accounting for fluctuations in demand. The ability to track inventories in near-real time would permit distribution centers to manage stock levels more efficiently. Thus, JIT logistics in this construct could minimize expensive overhead, globally, by reducing the need for excess inventory that warehouses currently retain to cover gaps in the LCOP.
Once stock departs the distribution center, near-real-time location updates from the same electronic tags are also possible during transit. Military supply chains can be long and the reliable receipt of parts can be critical. Such a tracking system, accessible from the DoD Information Network, would allow distributors and end users to track supplies en route, more accurately predict when they will be received, and plan accordingly.
Currently, many items in the military stock system have barcodes that personnel manually scan to track the location of items. But that tracking data point is only current at the moment scanned. Leveraging IoT concepts with the connectivity of 5G would automate continuous tracking in real time.
In 2018, the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) saw the potential in leveraging the IoT and outfitted 50,000 dry-cargo shipping containers with IoT devices. Now, in addition to real-time visibility of a container’s location throughout shipment, MSC is able to track when the doors open and close, providing tamper-status and security of the contents. To maintain connectivity at sea, MSC installed base stations on their ships to relay communications between the IoT devices and off-ship servers. These tracking and data collection capabilities provided MSC with multiple competitive advantages over non IoT-equipped companies.
Implementation of the IoT across the U.S. military services’ logistics systems could enable integrated joint warehousing. A unit’s supply request could be directed to and fulfilled by the most expedient distribution center location, regardless of service, increasing the speed of fulfillment.
Of the supply chain automation functionality described, there are limited practical applications via existing 4G, Wi-Fi, and wired net. LOGSA projected a cost savings over $100 million per year once the AI works. But 5G overcomes connection density and latency limitations of 4G, the interoperability challenges in transitioning between Wi-Fi instantiations, and mobility limitations of wired networks. In other words, 5G is a critical component to automating military logistics. algorithms implemented.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Joint Logistics Planning System
The DoD defines AI as: “… The ability of machines to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence—for example, recognizing patterns, learning from experience, drawing conclusions, making predictions, or taking action—whether digitally or as the smart software behind autonomous physical systems.”
Some experts tout AI as the “next Industrial Revolution.” In late 2018, the DoD established a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to “accelerate the delivery of AI-enabled capabilities, scale the Department-wide impact of AI, and synchronize DoD AI activities to expand Joint Force advantages.”
Improving the JLEnt through the application of AI in supply chain management systems can lead to cost-effective and time-efficient resupply and joint force sustainment. In 2017, the Logistics Support Activity (LOGSA) worked with International Business Machines (IBM) Corporation to apply AI in analyzing all of its repair parts shipping requests; from the efficiencies gained, LOGSA projected a cost savings over $100 million per year once the AI algorithms are fully implemented.
For AI to function well, it needs lots of relevant data. 5G networks would enable high-speed data throughput necessary for relaying massive volumes of data from the ever-growing number of devices connected to the network, including mobile phones, IoT devices (estimated to reach 20 billion by 2020), and AGVs. AI provides the methods to analyze and learn from the voluminous data.
Continued investment in and leveraging of AI in conjunction with 5G and the IoT within the Joint Logistics Planning System can lead to enhanced performance through gains in:
- Efficiency of data analysis
- Supply and maintenance prediction
- Shortened decision cycles
- Increased awareness of the operational environment
There are inherent risks that commanders should consider before employing 5G to support military logistics. These include detection of communications and subsequent enumeration of military assets, integrity and confidentiality of the data communicated, and continued availability of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum for 5G.
Risks in Telecommunications Equipment
The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei is highly suspected to be connected with and subsidized by the Chinese Government. As such, Huawei’s systems likely contain virtual backdoors that China could exploit for espionage purposes or to affect telecommunications services. It is possible that U.S. forces would need to operate in an area with established Chinese-built 5G networks. This is not a reason to avoid 5G employment within the U.S. military but it is a necessary consideration when analyzing the operational environment and mitigating risk.
Detection and Enumeration
Whenever there is an active RF transmitter, there is a capability for both intended and unintended recipients to receive that signal. Essentially, any receiver can listen to a transmitted signal within range. In populated areas where there are relatively high concentrations of 5G devices, these military logistics devices would not stand out as something abnormal; however, a cluster of 5G devices that suddenly pops up in a remote location could draw attention. When operating in unfriendly or hostile areas, commanders should have the option to effect a transmit-inhibit state for any transmit capable devices.
Data Confidentiality and Integrity
Data confidentiality can also be a concern given the prevalence of 5G network equipment coming from companies with questionable motives, notably those suspected to be connected with or subsidized by foreign governments; however, the data can be encrypted relatively easily encrypted. Having data integrity is like having a tamper seal on a container. If data integrity controls are in place, then the recipient can discern whether the data are changed from what the sender transmitted. If the signal was hacked and data corrupted, the data will fail the integrity checks and the receiving device should request retransmission. If the retransmitted data also failed the integrity checks, the transmission will be denied. Mitigating this type of vulnerability requires mostly engineering-level improvements, specifications the DoD could require for its 5G device acquisition contracts.
A significant hurdle in adopting 5G is the requirement for new infrastructure to operate in the radio frequency spectrum bands allocated for 5G communications. This hurdle will be overcome once telecommunications companies institute 5G network infrastructures. In the meantime and in any location lacking 5G coverage—including at sea, in the air, or where there is significant risk of adversary activity effecting a denial of service—the DoD could establish military-operated 5G intermediary base stations, converting the signal to another military communications medium, like a satellite communications signal.
5G and the U.S. Government
Encouragingly, the U.S. government has been attempting to create government structure and partnership with private industry to support the development of 5G, AI, and autonomous systems. The new Army Futures Command has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University on AI and robotics research and development. The efforts of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, through its $2 billion investment in the AI Next Campaign and the Defense Innovation Unit, continues to conduct groundbreaking work on research and development.
The current Administration and Congress have demonstrated bipartisan support toward implementing 5G in the U.S. by introducing 23 legislative items in 2019 specifically addressing 5G.
The Defense Innovation Board released a report in April 2019 detailing the proposed adoption of 5G and the opportunities, threats, and strategic decision points that come with it. Before investing in 5G infrastructure and devices, the DoD must choose which of the two 5G frequency bands it will utilize. The decision may affect the cost of implementation, the time until 5G can be operational, and whether the U.S. standard will be interoperable with the worldwide standard. Cooperation with private industry and competitors is necessary to drive the quicker availability of viable 5G infrastructure and networks for DoD.
Implementation of 5G technology in the DoD can provide improved joint logistics responsiveness, accuracy, flexibility, and economy around the globe, both now and in the future, by enhancing inventory control, reordering, supply and maintenance analytics, autonomous warehouses, and the method by which the joint force conducts resupply. These gains collectively outweigh 5G limitations. As with any new technology there is a degree of risk, but the risk can be mitigated if networks, hardware, and devices are designed with the inherent risks considered and appropriately addressed. The DoD should make a concerted effort with other government agencies and private industry to execute a viable way forward for 5G that can provide a joint logistics advantage for the U.S. when projecting power across the globe.
The unabridged version of this article received the General MacArthur Writing Foundation Award from the Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, Virginia, Nov 2019.
U.S. Army Maj. Mic Martin is a career Army Logistician who has served in Logistics units at Fort Knox; Fort Campbell; Hohenfels, Germany; and Torii Station and Naha, Okinawa. He is currently assigned as logistics current operations officer for North and West Africa, J4 directorate, Special Operations Command, Africa, in Stuttgart, Germany. Martin holds a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the Naval War College and a Bachelor of Science in Safety and Occupational Health from Slippery Rock University. Prior to his current assignment, Martin served as executive officer for 835th Transportation Battalion in Okinawa, Japan.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Stacey Kidd is a special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). She is serving as deputy command counterintelligence coordinating authority, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. Kidd holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from Midwestern State University in 2006 and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the National Defense Intelligence College. Prior to her current assignment, Kidd served as deputy director for Studies, Analysis, and Integration at U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations headquarters, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia.
U.S. Navy Lt. Cdr. Chris Landis is serving as chief of operations at Joint Force Headquarters, Department of Defense Information Network, at Fort Meade, Maryland. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology with a second discipline in Space Operations, from the U.S. Naval Academy, a Master of Information Technology Strategy from Carnegie Mellon University, and has been a Certified Information Systems Security Professional since 2014. Prior to his current assignment, Landis served as Combat Systems Information Officer aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).
This article was published in the April-June 2020 issue of Army Sustainment.