It takes a good 20 minutes to get Colonel Mike Driscoll on the phone to discuss the 5G experiment he is coordinating for the US Air Force. The landline at his air base keeps going straight to voicemail. Then we miss several of each other’s emails suggesting alternative numbers. Eventually, I manage to reach him on his iPhone, a metaphor he returns to later to describe the US military’s new, decentralised approach to command and control, and where 5G comes in.

Before getting to the details, he introduces himself as an F-16 pilot, “a caveman really”. Given his current job title, he’s clearly being modest. His children may have helped him set up the iPhone he’s talking on but he’s also the director of future operations at the USAF Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. It’s one of five bases involved in a three-year, $600m Department of Defense (DoD) experiment to investigate how 5G technology could potentially revolutionise the way the US Air Force commands and controls its operations. As Driscoll has learned first-hand in the field, the current system has its vulnerabilities. He spent two years at the 607th Air Operations Center in South Korea, which houses hundreds of USAF staff from four-star generals to liaison officers and bombers, as well their opposite numbers in the Navy, the Marines and the Korean military. “It’s a fixed structure that’s easily targetable via either cyber or kinetic means like bombs or missiles,” he explains.

The idea of introducing 5G technology, with its increased bandwidth, faster speed and lower latency, is to separate and disperse the core functions of air operations centres like this one into various mobile networks, which the enemy can’t locate. “You still have that collaboration like you would on an air operations centre floor where everyone has a screen showing a common operating picture,” Driscoll says. “But everyone can walk away with their own iPad linked into the core network.”

It’s part of the US military’s larger Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) project, which aims to connect sensors from all military services into a single network, enabling faster decisions while degrading the enemy’s decision-making capabilities.

As Bryan Clark, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute – a think tank dedicated to analysis of economic, security and political issues – explains: “Part of that is pushing decision making out to the edge, which means field commanders getting more responsibility. They get the information in real time and can decide faster what needs to happen, rather than everything going to a senior commander in a distant headquarters. It also creates more unpredictability for the enemy because these individual commanders can have a wide range of creative solutions, whereas your distant headquarters might be limited in how creative they can be.”

A playground for experimentation

The staff at Nellis Air Base are no strangers to trial and error. Covering 4,500 square miles of land and 5,000 square miles of air space, the base is home to every type of military aircraft you can imagine and hosts the annual ‘Red Flag’ event, where all units come home for one of the USAF’s largest combat training exercises.

“It’s basically a big playground for experimentation,” says Driscoll. The three-year 5G project is currently in phase one. The team has built a core system, to which they have connected COLT light tactical vehicles with 5G antennas attached to them. “Right now, they’re connected by fibre so they’re not mobile yet, but phase two is to disconnect that fibre and work with contractors to develop software and applications to use out in the field, so the COLTs can go about the base and continue to communicate wirelessly over 5G via these applications,” he explains.

Ultimately, the USAF’s entire command and control infrastructure will be applications-based, just like the iPhone we’re speaking on. To illustrate his point, Driscoll refers back to his F-16. “When I’m flying and there’s something wrong with my aircraft, I get on the radio and relay that to my squadron operations. I then land, talk to maintenance, tell them the problem, they troubleshoot it and down the road, they may have to order a part,” he says. “That takes time and it’s a slow process.”

More modern aircraft like the F-35 already have an automatic logistics system. They self-diagnose and send that data directly to the squadron and maintenance, so the part is ordered automatically. With an advanced 5G network, this data could be passed through to a central cloud even if the F-35 lands off-base.

Or say that F-35 was fighting in enemy territory and was targeted by an enemy radar. “The F-35 would collect all the data being used against it and send that to a cloud, where it would be analysed. By the time the F-35 lands, it would be reprogrammed with new data and software to better fight against that enemy radar,” Driscoll explains.

“The phone you tried to call me on earlier is plugged in with a wire, but on my iPhone, even though it’s five years old, everything is applications based. Right now, I can’t take my F-16 and download new software; I’d have to replace components. But in the future, we could use a combination of 5G with applications-based software in jets and then rapidly change and reprogramme radars and jamming pods depending on the data they receive.”

“They get the information in real time and can decide faster what needs to happen, rather than everything going to a senior commander in a distant headquarters.”

Bryan Clark


Square miles of air space covered by Nellis Air Force Base.


Square miles of land covered by Nellis Air Force Base.

US Air Force

Decision support tools Driscoll is envisioning examples of the decision-support tools Clark is working with the military to put in place. “We’re going to be pushing decision authority down to lower levels and also giving them a lot more stuff to use – more electronic warfare systems, weapons and unmanned vehicles,” he says. “With the work we’ve done so far for the DoD, we’ve seen that junior leaders get overwhelmed with the pace of decision making they have to do on their own without staff or a headquarters, so we have to give them decision-support tools to allow them to determine the courses of action that are most beneficial.”

5G architecture can help provide that support, quickly. “If you have a bunch of people using their cell phones out in the middle of nowhere and they’re using today’s cell phone network, they have to go all the way back to some server that the company runs and then all the way back out. There’s this huge latency because it takes seconds or minutes to get all that communication done,” Clark explains.

“We need a security apparatus, a network that is all encompassing between the DoD and our allied partners, and we struggle with that today – even with basic command and control among platforms within the USAF.”

Colonel Mike Driscoll

Whereas if the processing is done out at that edge, it simply has to go to the 5G tower and then immediately to the other mission participants. For example, a junior commander with a 5G phone could use a 5G network to talk to all the troops and unmanned vehicles in the field and the server can immediately provide them with decision support, showing where everybody is, what their fuel status is, what weapons they have and how much ammunition they’ve got.

“All this stuff can be communicated in real time to the commander without anything going back to a core network and back to headquarters, which is important because those communications could be cut off,” Clark says. “You just need the 5G infrastructure and then you can programme it with the applications you want to programme it with.”

Doing things by the book

Of course, getting to this point is far from simple. On top of security issues, there are huge questions around how these 5G-enabled applications-based systems can be integrated not only with all USAF platforms – an F-16 talking to an F-22, for example – but with Navy and Army platforms and the US military’s allied partners.

“We need a security apparatus, a network that is all encompassing between the DoD and our allied partners, and we struggle with that today – even with basic command and control among platforms within the USAF,” Driscoll acknowledges. “Boeing might build one plane and Lockheed will build another, and the two systems aren’t compatible. The five-year experiment we’re working on is to test all these applications, pick one and move forward or ensure that, if we pick more than one, they all work together.”

Changing the way the military communicates will also mean changes to its TTPs – tactics, techniques and procedures. “Everything in the military is by regulation or by a handbook,” Driscoll stresses. “So we need to figure out among all the echelons of leadership, not only how are we going to put this together but what’s our means of using it, our standards.”

There may also be significantly less manpower needed in structures like the 607th Air Operations Center. “With one person having access to all of this information, we could then skinny down the numbers required within the building. We need to figure out how many people we will actually need,” Driscoll says.

In the longer term, the hope is that the systems Driscoll and Clark describe will be interfaced with artificial intelligence technology, allowing applications to make autonomous decisions. Clark is also working with the DoD to explore whether using what will ultimately be a ubiquitous infrastructure – 5G networks – will allow the US military to hide in plain sight. It’s all in pursuit of the overarching JADC2 goal: to move faster than their adversaries. In the meantime, Driscoll laughs, it may be time to get an upgrade on his iPhone.