Guest Column | Huddle Together

In a Network Centric Warfare era, the army and air force should integrate

Brig MKK Iyer (retd)

It does take a network to beat a network and our network must be better

—General John Abizaid

Target the whole network of the enemy and not individuals

—General David Petraeus


As a young Major in the Indian Army in the late Nineties, I heard the term Network Centric Warfare (NCW) as a new military doctrine for the first time in a talk by a senior army officer and I was one of the forced attendees to fill the hall. The dreary lecture prolonged and as usual most of the audience went into meditation mode with nocturnal sound emanating from tired nostrils.

But, in the years to come, one could understand the need for utilisation of the improved technology and overload of information as India fast-tracked itself into the digital and mobile communication age. Although, the doctrine was pioneered by the United States, we realised that it was a very useful concept to understand and fight the next war. It was more so of my interest as it had all the similarities with air defence and was a useful platform and doctrine to make the air force (also navy where feasible) and the army to operationalise, train and work together.


Network Centric Warfare

The doctrine is primarily based on the concept of using information advantage through a computer and communication network. It consists of sensors, command control systems and weapons fused to fight on the basis of situational awareness, rapid target assessment and distributed weapon assignment.

At the human level, we could consider eyes, ears and smell and touch as the sensors, which provide the inputs to the brain that acts as the assessment centre and commands the hands and legs to react to the threat anticipated through the sensors. Of course, this example would be considered as too basic when we consider the NCW. The doctrine has associated terms like ‘full spectrum dominance’—military’s achievement to control over all dimensions of battle space with available resources in such areas as terrestrial, aerial, maritime, extra-terrestrial, psychological and bio or cyber technology warfare. This would also include the physical battle space—air, surface and sub surface as well as electromagnetic spectrum and information space.

In 2001, the term Understanding Information Age Warfare linked to the NCW was published as Understanding Information Age Warfare by David S. Alberts, John J. Garstka, Richard E. Hayes and David A. Signori (CCRP Publications August 2001). It stated that warfare structures three domains—physical domain (where events occur) and are perceived by sensors and individuals. Data that emerges from the information domain is acted upon and the data is processed and thereafter, the cognitive domain which deals with assessment and action takes over. In a way it replicates the famous OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) described by Col John Boyd of the USAF.

That leaves us to wonder about the various requirements of NCW. The first requirement is a ‘grid’ or the term Global Information Grid (GIG) coined by US. It would need everything and everyone to be connected to this grid. Sometimes, it is called as the ‘system of systems’, to describe results that emanate from these integration efforts. NCW therefore, can be ascribed the following tenets according to Joint Vision 2010: Defence Technology Information Centre (US DoD Joint Chiefs of Staff):

  • A robustly networked force that shares information through sensors.
  • The sharing of information and collaboration process and its quality which provides situational awareness through a fail-safe communication media.
  • Shared situational awareness enables synchronised activities through a command and control centre.
  • Increases the mission effectiveness exponentially with land, air and naval platforms and units.

Military operations must capitalise on advantages and advances of information technology. The Grid would have four layers. The ‘space-based layer’ would be the backbone and therefore, use of satellites like India’s Air Force specific ASAT 7A and that of navy specific GSAT 7 are vital with a satellite laser link. The airborne network layer is the next with a high bandwidth link followed by a tactical layer and the final terrestrial layer. The superiority of the force comes with superiority of information.

Human dimension in NCW is still the most important and that makes the man behind the machine the most vital aspect. There is a need for high standards of training, education, doctrine, organisation and leadership. It needs collaboration like a football game, by all the players. Information is only useful if it is acted upon. The premise that more information is better is not always true, like many failed aspirants appearing for Civil Services Examination or Defence Services Staff College Entrance Examination realise a little too late. Information does enhance intelligence but this in turn must aid decision making. It precisely means that understanding the data available is paramount. This also means that team members over a space and time need to understand the impact, import and quality of this information.


Capability with the Indian Defence Forces

The capability within the Indian defence forces exists today but it seems to be within the individual Services. Service specific satellites have been planned and a few already launched. Two-star officer headed offices have also been set up for the purpose of NCW operations but it all seems that the real network centric with one commander is still lacking. Integration and interconnection (networking) of all different parties to exchange information and create a situational awareness for fast and correct decision making for appropriate action still needs to be done. The establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the decision to integrate commands in the future are pointers in the right direction.


Air Defence and NCW—Commonalities

Air defence involves four tasks—detection of aerospace borne threats, identification, interception and finally, destruction. That said, the need for a single agency to carry out these tasks stares us in the face as the origin of the threat is from one area i.e., the Aerospace; but response to the threat has to be from air, surface or sub surface. It translates to the fact that for a common challenge of air threat from one domain, response has to be from three domains. This in turn means that an integrated approach to this problem is paramount.

If the four tasks of air defence are co-related with the four activities of NCW operations, the detection would amount to deployment of radars or other sensors and provision of networked information. How this information is passed would translate into having a failsafe and robust communication means. The identification would be in a place (command and control centre) where a decision-making process is carried out to ensure air threat is separated from own aerial assets and allocation of appropriate method of destruction is done.

Finally, the threat is neutralised by allotted means (destruction). Therefore, we can safely assume that the task of air defence involves all activities of any NCW operation and needs a single entity response. NCW and air defence both necessitate a cohesive plan, use of all resources spread across space and time and more importantly, one decision making authority. Probably, that is one of the reasons that the process of setting up of an Air Defence Command was the first action of the CDS.

Presently, the country’s air defence is assigned as the responsibility of the Indian Air Force (IAF). However, all three Services have their own resources to carry out this task of air defence; the army has numerous, and of different vintage, resources for air defence; each naval platform is fitted with different air defence equipment and the air force also has its own platforms to detect and destroy the aerial threats. Except for the operational control, presently the IAF has no real control or authorisation for employment of these potent resources with the other two Services. So much so that there is separate air defence resources employed by the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). Each of the three Services have their own equipment procurement priorities, communication, training and command and control set up with integration being carried out as per standing operating procedures during operations and field training or exercises.


Joint Air Defence: How Indian Army and IAF Can Get their Act Together?

Having seen that the air defence and NCW activities are generally common, it is necessary that the air defence has to have a single command. The Air Defence Command cannot be geographic in our case and needs to be one and a tri-service entity. This gets more complicated when the civilian aspects, aerial assets and resources also get added.

At the least, the army and the IAF operational and administrative control have to be together or it will have all the problems faced by the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) where resources are under various Services but operational functionality is that of ANC.

The first activity could be an integrated sensor network. In a two-front war scenario, the aerial threat could originate from the Northern and the Western theatres. Even if we do not consider the threat from the seas and leave it to the navy, there is an urgent requirement to plug the gaps. The IAF and the Indian Army radars need to be deployed in tiers to ensure a network of integrated sensors is created in terrestrial and space arenas. Each of the Service personnel could operate their own sensors but the output has to be fed to a common centre through a common means of communication.

An integrated network of satellites, airborne early warning aircraft like AEWs/AWACS, long range surveillance radars and tactical control radars should be able to act as the eyes and ears to ensure aerial threat is detected well beyond the borders. The army could feed the inputs from its light-weight low level radars on the Northern Sector to provide gap free surveillance into the integrated network.

Secondly, the communication has to be common and integrated. Today, the IAF has its fibre optic based AFNET whereas the army has its ASCON. The Defence Communication Network or DCN is the need of the hour at least for the NCW and Air Defence Operations. Thirdly, the IAF operates an automatic system called Automated Integrated Command and Control System (AICCS) which acts as the command and control centre and where an air situation picture fed from the sensors is toady available. The air action in the Western Front in February 2019 post IAF strikes across Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and the destruction of an enemy F-16 aircraft were all controlled by AICCS. However, the army does not have any such system and is equipped with semi-automated systems which get integrated during field exercises.

The army’s version of Akash Teer is yet to be inducted and so is the navy’s Trigun. It is very important that at least the IAF and army have a common command and control automated system along with common communication channel for air defence. This is an important aspect and probably would be accepted as a necessity when the AD Command comes up.

Finally, the destruction resources and their allotment and deployment need to emanate from the threats envisaged and directions from the command and control centre. This is the trickiest aspect as yet. Air defence utilises AWACS, fighter aircraft and electronic warfare aircraft as well as ground-to-air missiles and guns to destroy the enemy threat. The AWACS and fighter aircraft, especially the multi-role aircraft of the modern day are all dual or multi-role resources. Therefore, pre allocation may not be a viable solution. Similarly, the ground-based operations from the air defence point of view when moving across the international border would be a challenge.


Joint Air Defence Command in an NCW Scenario: A Panacea?

My aim here is not to provide a solution to how a Joint Air Defence Command should be. How and what should constitute the Joint Air Defence Command is to be left to the able commanders of the board of officers who are already grappling with the challenges posed by such an enormous task in an environment where turf supremacy prevails. But there are some aspects which need to be brought into the joint operations on the air defence front, for now, at least of the army and the IAF.

On the operational front, a joint and integrated network of surveillance sensors, even if manned by a particular service, providing the asset is a must. This also leads us to look at the future of acquisition of these assets where a joint specification (qualitative requirements) needs to be put forth based on the requirements of the national integrated sensor grid. Appropriately the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) headed by the CDS has been nominated for future acquisition.

The responsibility of providing communications for the networking cannot be individual Service responsibility and has to be seriously considered as an Air Defence Communication Network if not a DCN. This is of paramount importance in any air defence battle, which is fought in minutes if not seconds. Such a communication channel can only provide continued and updated air situation picture to the command and control centre. The AICCS needs to be definitely extended to the Army resources and it cannot be left to operate another system like Akash Teer in an integrated air defence battle scenario. This would not only enhance the capability of AICCS and integrated command and control but would also save on resources with manning by adding army operators.

Finally, on the administrative, training, logistics, life cycle management and economic front too, there are very wide gains to be made with a joint air defence command in the NCW scenario. Common equipment will lead to integrated training establishments, reduction of manpower due to common manning protocols, related storage and transportation of spares, repairs and upgrades and most of all a genuine joint operation of the green, navy blue and the sky blue turning purple.

(The writer was a Director in WE Directorate and DDG Procurement & Equipment in the Indian Army’s Air Defence Directorate. He is a vice president with Bharat Forge now)


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