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DOD FutureG Office Invests in NPS to Advance 5G Networks, Workforce

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Lucas Vancina s thesis research supports the NPS FutureG partnership to advance next generation wireless network capabilities in the Department of Defense.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Lucas Vancina’s thesis research supports the NPS-FutureG partnership to advance next-generation wireless network capabilities in the Department of Defense. Vancina’s thesis explores using the software defined networking architecture provided by open source 5G radio access networks for tactical applications specifically in expeditionary environments.

The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s FutureG Office recently took a significant step toward advancing next-generation wireless network capabilities for the Department of Defense (DOD) and developing the workforce to deploy them.

On April 22, Dr. Tom Rondeau, FutureG's principal director, formally approved a $1.8 million investment in NPS over the next five years for workforce development and education in addition to research in expeditionary applications of 5G open networks and beyond.

The project, entitled Active-Duty Open-Source Development (ADOSD), seeks to establish a formal and sustained graduate-level education and research program at NPS to develop advanced 5G (Fifth Generation) and FutureG (Future Generation) expertise in the active-duty force. This is particularly important for personnel who may be tasked to plan, install, operate and maintain 5G/FutureG networks in expeditionary environments.

“FutureG pursued this partnership because NPS understands the mission context in which 5G/FutureG technology will come to bear,” said Rondeau. “This extends beyond the active-duty students to the faculty and staff that have become highly skilled in the application of their expertise to dynamic warfighter challenges. The expertise they gain will help us understand how to buy, deploy, and manage advanced wireless networks like 5G and 6G. Coupled with their previous experiences in the fleet, this will help us innovate and deploy technologies that support future operations and the department’s strategic vision.”

Leveraging partnerships with industry and academia, the FutureG office is tasked with developing innovative solutions in 5G and FutureG cellular network systems and technologies that will enhance military wireless communication and data transport capabilities. Future-generation wireless technologies are one of the “seed areas of emerging opportunity” identified in the 2023 National Defense Science and Technology Strategy as crucial to the DOD.

“This partnership with NPS will provide FutureG with a steady stream of operationally-experienced, active-duty students who are eager to work on relevant problems,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Ben Pimentel, Ph.D., FutureG’s technical lead for Expeditionary & Tactical Use (ETU) and an NPS alumnus. “The hands-on experience students gain during research and coursework leveraging open source 5G/FutureG software will lay the foundation for the workforce that will proliferate this technology across the force.”

5G has become the global technology standard for wireless cellular networks – it’s much faster, more reliable and flexible, and has a higher capacity than its predecessors. Its use has become pervasive around the world, primarily through commercial cell phones but increasingly through a multitude of connected devices in the Internet of Things.

For the military, this presents new horizons in battlefield communications: a scalable, deployable and secure “network-in-a-box” capable of supporting grey zone maritime operations and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO), enabling forward presence and communications resiliency even in degraded or denied environments.

This, according to U.S. Navy Capt. Chad Bollmann, director of NPS’ Center for Cyber Warfare (CCW) and co-primary investigator on the ADOSD project, makes education and research into 5G/FutureG telecommunications critically important.

“There are two really radical differences about 5G,” he said. “One, fundamental to the ADOSD project, is the idea that everything is going to be virtualized. It’s going to be a lot of virtual services that run your cell phone instead of needing a lot of custom equipment. Those virtual services let the DOD build a network to their purposes and needs, rather than using a network that was built for, say, AT&T to sell services to civilians. Now we can actually do DOD stuff with the network without having to pay to adapt someone else’s network.”

“The other thing is that 5G is going to be pervasive, including in space,” Bollmann continued. “Implementation of the technology is not quite there yet, but we’re currently testing 5G to satellite communications utilizing Starlink and all of the (Proliferated Low Earth Orbit (pLEO)) satellite constellations.”

Combined with a profusion of leave-behind sensors – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Unmanned Aerial Systems, for example – as the Internet of Things moves from Wi-Fi to 5G, suddenly the battlespace becomes illuminated with a significantly reduced need for traditional commercial cell towers.

“The idea of being able to move rapidly from island to island and set up observation and targeting bases and intelligence gathering platforms, this type of pervasive on-demand network is essential to that vision of prevailing in Maritime Grey Zone conflicts,” Bollmann added.

However, the DOD currently has no formal or sustained graduate education program to develop advanced 5G/FutureG expertise in the active-duty force to support this. The ADOSD project seeks to address this gap.

To do so, the project will be executed in three distinct phases. The first, lasting two to three years, will consist of enabling master and doctoral-level research which primarily aligns with FutureG’s ETU portfolio or other FutureG priorities. This research will leverage an open standards private 5G network testbed being built as part of the ADOSD effort, the DOD Open Testbed for Expeditionary FutureG (.EFG).

NPS is already well underway in this, Bollman says. The CCW has years of experience instantiating, investigating and expanding open source private 5G networks, currently engaging six theses, three professors and 10 students. An additional two dissertations, four theses and four professors are exploring novel 5G security and privacy implementations. As .EFG is built and enhanced, NPS will leverage the knowledge, experience, and solutions developed by performers of the OPS-5G program, a DARPA research program exploring applications of open source 5G networks.

The center will focus its .EFG research along seven lines of effort, including long-range private 5G networks for grey-zone operations, industrial 5G for EABOs and real-time EABO 5G streaming communications for DOD applications.

This research is bolstered by the strong relationships with industry NPS maintains. The institution has standing Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) with Qualcomm, AT&T and Microsoft, and is currently engaged in conversations with NVIDIA and T-Mobile, amongst others.

“The CRADAs we’ve signed are huge and important: these companies are on the bleeding edge of 5G,” Bollmann said. “They’ve facilitated 5G research here in the past and we’re going to continue to partner with them.”

NPS’ greatest research asset, he continued, are the students themselves: operationally experienced practitioners who come to NPS from across all services of the military, bringing with them an inherent curiosity about the future and what comes next.

“Our students are really interested in figuring 5G out and are excited about taking the technology that they interface with almost daily and folding it into battlefield deployment use cases,” noted Darren Rogers, faculty associate in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department and co-primary investigator on the ADOSD project along with Bollmann.

Marine Corps Capt. Lucas Vancina, for example, is one year into his studies toward a master’s degree in computer science. A communications officer, he brings to his studies at NPS a wealth of field experience in working with communications networks.

His graduate thesis will explore using the extensibility and flexibility of the software defined networking architecture that open source 5G radio access networks provide to make them more usable and secure for tactical applications, specifically in expeditionary environments.

“It’s really exciting to see how much can be done with it; we’re still just scratching the surface,” Vancina said. “There is just so much that could be done with the 5G framework. The technology provides a lot of capability.”

“For my research, I think the most significant thing that will come out of it is that I’m starting to push the boundary of what is possible within current network architecture specifications,” he continued. “Hopefully it’ll start to open up more and more opportunities to add functionality on top of what is already being provided within 5G.”

The second phase, lasting one to two years, will focus on curriculum development informed by the experience of the research conducted in the first. It will implement a course progression culminating in an academic certificate. Meanwhile, individual research for master’s and doctoral students will continue to be funded.

Here, too, NPS is ahead of the curve, currently offering a profusion of courses and directed studies that introduce and cover 5G topics across a broad swath of six different academic programs, including ECE, Computer Science (CS), Master of Science in Applied Cyber Operations (MACO), Cyber Security Operations (CSO), the Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation (MOVES) program, and the Information Sciences (IS) department.

“What we’re looking at now is how to make these scale and accessible rather than a one-off,” Bollmann said. “The idea would be offering a stackable 5G certificate as well as building a research testbed on campus which anybody could come use.”

A stackable certificate would offer an interdisciplinary, baseline knowledge of 5G which could then be applied to the different angles of different departments to explore the art of the possible.

“MOVES faculty and students look at how to use 5G; they’re definitely kicking the tires and asking what it brings to the fight,” Rogers said. “In the ECE department, we like to get deep down under the hood and explore how it actually works and how things work together: how do you get on this network? How do you provision it? How do you manage it? What does the RF layer look like from an engineering perspective?”

With the first and second phases firmly established, the final phase will seek to continuously evolve the cellular curriculum to ensure technical and operational relevance and continue to support master’s and doctoral research. This third phase will continue indefinitely based on mutual agreement between FutureG and NPS.

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