Defence Minister Antony talks over the AFNet link, from the inauguration ceremony, to a MiG-29 pilot flying a simulated mission over Punjab
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Sept 10
“I have bin Laden”, gasped the French sniper, squinting into the telescopic sight of his long-range rifle in Afghanistan. If a documentary film by two well-known journalists is credible, this was the first of two occasions, six months apart in 2003 and 2004, when just a trigger squeeze would have eliminated the world’s most famous terrorist. But on both occasions, according to the documentary, poor communication links meant that US commanders took two hours to authorize the killing. By then, bin Laden had gone.
While the incident is denied by the French military, everyone agrees that real-time communications are crucial for seizing fleeting opportunities in today’s fast-paced battlefield. “Network-centric” warfare, which major militaries aspire to, links sensors, decision-makers and shooters onto a single grid, to reduce delays that might allow targets to escape. In New Delhi today, the Indian Air Force took a giant step towards “network-centric” warfare by inaugurating AFNet (or Air Force Network), a secure, gigabyte-capacity, digital radio network that links IAF command posts, fighter bases, radars, missile batteries and airborne fighters into a seamless whole.
At the laser-enlivened inauguration ceremony, Defence Minister AK Antony and Minister for Communications & IT A Raja watched an IAF command post, set up next to them, direct the interception, by a pair of Indian MiG-29 fighters, of two simulated enemy fighters that had intruded into Indian airspace. After the MiG-29s, which were actually airborne 8000 metres above Punjab, had shot down the intruders, Antony chatted with the pilot over radio, congratulating him and ordering him back to base.
“A dream has come true for the IAF”, declared Air Chief Marshall PV Naik. “All IAF bases are now inter-connected. And, best of all, AFNet has been completed quicker than any other defence project.”
Begun just four years ago, the Rs 1077 crore AFNet has been developed as a public-private project by BSNL, HCL Infosystems, and Cisco Systems. The system has already been installed in IAF stations across the country, including in the south. One of the two Integrated Air Command Centres (IACC), the hub-centres that watch over and protect Indian airspace, is already activated.
A key feature of AFNet’s successful development has been close liaison between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of Communications and IT (MoCIT). Providing impetus to this cooperation is the “Network for Spectrum” principle, which binds the MoD to release frequency spectrum to the MoCIT as optic fibre-based networks like AFNet reduce the military’s reliance on radio communications. The MoCIT plans to use the released spectrum for extending 2G and 3G mobile telephony services to the public.
Communications minister, A Raja, welcomed AFNet as vital for increasing India’s teledensity from the current 50% towards the 100% mark. “It is a pleasure to know that the IAF has successfully implemented its ‘Network for Spectrum’ component, the AFNet”, declared Raja. “This will now enable the defence services to permanently release spectrum for the growth of commercial mobile services.”
But the defence minister indicated that more needed to be done before the MoD released a sizeable chunk of spectrum. Speaking immediately after Raja, Antony responded, “I would like to remind my colleague in the Ministry of Communications and IT… (that) even though I am very happy, I am not fully happy. I will be fully happy when… the army and navy will (also) be provided with network-centric capabilities. I am waiting for that day to celebrate jointly again like this.”
HCL Infosystems Chairman & CEO, Ajai Chowdhry, told Business Standard that the IAF used more frequency than the army and the navy, and that the implementation of AFNet would free about 35 Megahertz of frequency for civilian usage. But military sources pointed out that this frequency would be released in tranches rather than simultaneously.
For the IAF, which has relied since the late-1950s on vintage troposcatter-based communications, AFNet is a vital step forward. Says Air Vice Marshall Kapil Kak of the Centre for Air Power Studies, an IAF think-tank, “AFNet is upgradeable and will soon link Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and space-based systems with the current network. And, within five years, I see AFNet being extended to the army and navy as well.”