Open RAN takes to the battlefield

AT&T, Fujitsu, and US defence contractor Northrop Grumman believe open architecture could hold one of the keys to military victory.

Nick Wood

January 20, 2023

3 Min Read
now open sign neon

AT&T, Fujitsu, and US defence contractor Northrop Grumman believe open architecture could hold one of the keys to military victory.

The three companies this week demonstrated 5G-enabled intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in Northrop’s new 5G lab. In the demonstration, an AT&T private 5G network, running on Fujitsu Open RAN equipment, transmitted ISR data and video feeds from Northrop tactical data links. These links are used for battlefield communications between commanders, the front line, and surveillance assets in order to help coordinate activities and maintain a clear picture of what’s going on.

“This critical capability will bring together the high speeds, low latency and cybersecurity protections of private 5G networks with the flexibility and scalability of commercial 5G capabilities,” said Ben Davies, vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s networked information solutions division, in a statement. “Enabling 5G connectivity for our warfighters across domains will help realise a connected battlespace for the joint force.”

The demonstration builds on last year’s joint research and development partnership between AT&T and Northrop, under which they agreed to prototype, demonstrate and test the integration of AT&T’s commercial 5G networking capabilities with Northrop’s avionics and defence systems.

Open RAN is perhaps the most interesting aspect to this announcement. AT&T et al claim that using open architecture could offer the Department of Defence (DoD) the agility and flexibility required to rapidly deploy equipment and capabilities in a high-pressure location like a war-zone or ‘contested environment’, as they put it. The idea seems to have some merit. It is conceivable that it might one day be quicker to throw together a network with whatever equipment is lying around or can be procured – or even requisitioned – at short notice in time for a war if it uses open rather than proprietary standards.

“Open RAN is accelerating 5G innovations to deliver high-speed, low-latency requirements for mission-critical applications,” declared Greg Manganello, SVP and vice head of the 5G mobile systems business unit at Fujitsu. “Our collaboration with Northrop Grumman and AT&T highlights the benefits of the ecosystem underpinning of Open RAN, enabling new configurations of mission-critical communications networks.”

One significant practicality still needs to be figured out though, and that is spectrum. While the country you’re defending might willingly provide access to the licensed airwaves required to operate a private 5G network, that wouldn’t be the case on hostile soil.

Also, as has been proven during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, terrestrial telecoms infrastructure is often attacked in order to disrupt communication and generally sow confusion and panic. Even if not directly targeted, mobile connectivity can also go be disrupted by attacking the power grid.

In addition, as has been shown in Ukraine, satellite services like SpaceX’s Starlink have proven themselves vital to battlefield comms. Starlink uses small dish-shaped terminals for connectivity to the orbiting LEO satellite constellation, so why is Northrop working on solutions carried by a terrestrial network? put these questions to AT&T when the Northrop deal was announced last April and never heard back. re-sent broadly the same questions on Thursday, and will update this story accordingly if they feel like talking.

Update 12.00, 20/2/23: We received the following quote from Lance Spencer, Client Executive Vice President – Defense, AT&T in response to our questions after publication of this article: “We have more than 220 negotiated agreements which facilitate roaming and spectrum access across the globe.  We also have extensive host nation presence which provides us pathways to use host nation spectrum. As we prove concepts like this demo, we can use our extensive presence and footprint and work with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to refine Concepts of Operations and frameworks to deliver capabilities in support of DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control strategy.”


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About the Author(s)

Nick Wood

Nick is a freelancer who has covered the global telecoms industry for more than 15 years. Areas of expertise include operator strategies; M&As; and emerging technologies, among others. As a freelancer, Nick has contributed news and features for many well-known industry publications. Before that, he wrote daily news and regular features as deputy editor of Total Telecom. He has a first-class honours degree in journalism from the University of Westminster.

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