By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th July 18
The First Gulf War of 1991 – the official name of the four-day decimation of Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait the previous year – mesmerised television audiences everywhere. It was the world’s first televised war, where CNN showed bridges and tanks exploding in puffs of flame, their fates sealed by the placement of a cross hair from a fighter pilot’s cockpit. Cruise missiles moved almost leisurely through the streets of Baghdad before flying buildings through open doors and windows.
But while the citizen glued to her television screen took merely vicarious pleasure in that sanitised dance of death, the armed forces of other militaries were looking more carefully at the new, high-tech US military whose battlefield networking routed Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Army in less than 96 hours. that was clearly enjoying its catharsis from the humiliation of Vietnam. And none observed more carefully than China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Here was the ultimate power dream: a military that could see almost everything on the battlefield, at all times, day or night; and strike with unprecedented precision. In World War One, it took an estimated 12,000 bullets to hit a single soldier. But now, even while infantry on the battlefield continued spraying bullets indiscriminately, there was a growing role for “precision guided munitions” (PGMs). These weapons harnessed several new technologies – satellite and airborne surveillance, digital communications, inertial and satellite navigation, and electronic jamming.
But what impressed observers even more than the improved accuracy of individual weapons systems was the unprecedented coordination by the various elements of the military achieved by networking sensors and fusing the data they generated. Powerful computers and software presented commanders with the best options for striking enemy targets. And the accurate strike options themselves were made available faster.
Since then, the PLA has tried to replicate this networked military, pursuing what communist apparatchiks clumsily term “modern warfare under informatized conditions.” As is evident from its most recent White Paper of 2015, the PLA commits to enhancing its combat capability through systematically structured “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” (C4ISR) systems – now a buzzword in modern militaries.
In simple terms, this amounts to a shift in emphasis from steel to silicon. Instead of focusing on weapons platforms – such a tanks, warships or fighter aircraft – the focus is now the on network linkages between these platforms. Just as the US military first did, the PLA is transforming itself from a platform-centric force into a cyber-centric one.
A networked military enables it to be faster than the adversary on the “OODA loop” – the sequence of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. In simple terms that boils down to: detecting and identifying targets, deciding which in-range weapons to destroy him with and, finally, executing the strike.
Indian generals too like to talk about a “networked military”, but the reality is that our armed forces, especially the army, still operate like a mid-20thcentury force – a collective of individually controlled units that exchange limited information. While 21stcentury militaries network their combat, support and logistics units through high-bandwidth, digital data links, India’s army – and large parts of its navy and air force – rely on traditional communications, such as radio networks.
In fact, here is little conviction in the Indian military’s pursuit of a networked force, based on information technology and digital communications. On Friday, the army shut down one of its most promising network projects: the excellently conceived Battlefield Management System (BMS).
BMS aimed at networking combat echelons over man-portable digital communication links provided by a high-tech “software defined radio” (SDR) carried by individual combat soldiers. This would transform each soldier – traditionally no more than a “rifleman” – into a potent “digital entity” that receives data from multiple battlefield sensors, such as unmanned aircraft, radars, ground sensors and even lookout posts. In turn, each soldier transmits battlefield information available to him, feeding into a comprehensive “battlefield picture” available to every combatant.
BMS’ efficacy was to be enhanced further by connecting it with a range of other military networks, which are under development.These include an Artillery Command, Control and Communications System that networks fire support from artillery guns within range; an Air Defence Control & Reporting System that monitors airspace; and a Command Information and Decision Support System that generates automated solutions for commanders to choose from. Riding on the back of a Tactical Communications System, all these networks share information and enhance battlefield transparency.
However the disturbing fact is that a large number of technology-challenged senior officers of the army remain more comforable with platforms and weapons than with digital networks. The army’s recently-retired vice chief ordered BMS shut down in order to conserve money for legacy equipment like rifles.
To understand the advantages of a networked military, one need look no further than Uber. Until the turn of the century, if one wanted a taxi, one called up the local taxi stand, which would send a cab home. In the 2000s, radio taxis came into being. The customer called a central control room, which broadcast the request over a radio network that was received over a radio fitted in each taxi. A nearby taxi would pick up the customer, while the control room updated its map.
This model, which was slow and had capacity constraints, was overwhelmed by Uber, which connects all its taxis and every customer through a radio, computer and location tracker – which reside on every mobile phone. Uber’s data management and networking saves time and optimises limited resources.
Until the army becomes fully networked like Uber, it is essentially continuing to operate on the radio taxi model. Overworked headquarters and combat units continue functioning over inefficient voice (as opposed to data) channels, directing each unit individually.
This is what BMS seeks to remedy and Google Maps illustrates the model. Theoretically, a passenger could get to her destination sooner by buying a fast, expensive car, but traffic conditions often make a fast car irrelevant. Enter Google Maps, which “crowd sources” traffic conditions from users’ mobiles and feeds back the best route for each, thus allowing for the most efficient use of the road.
Extrapolating this common sense solution to the battlefield, BMS “crowd-sources” situational inputs from the tactical battle area — including from individual soldiers and weapons systems or surveillance devices. This updates situational awareness in real time, giving combat echelons a head start on the OODA loop.
The central challenge in developing modern digital networks is to create miniaturised and ruggedised equipment that combat forces can carry and the most important element of this is man-portable radio communications, since a force outpaces its static communication grids while advancing into enemy territory.
“Every field army is structured on the basis of self-sufficiency. It carries its own tentage, transport, cookhouses and road-building equipment, since these cannot be sourced from anywhere on the battlefield. The same is true of communications,” says an officer who works on communication grids.
“Given India’s information technology skills, we should enjoy an advantage in building digital networks. This is a technology domain in which self-sufficiency and indigenisation is critical, since we must guard against an adversary infiltrating or subverting our digital networks. But there is still only limited understanding of these issues and we have far to travel,” says Rahul Chaudhry, who heads the Defence Innovators and Industry Association.