Guest Column | Transform and Triumph

The IAF is still miles away from being a truly networked force

Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)

The Network Centric Warfare (NCW) concept was first evolved by Vice Admiral Arthur Cebrowski of the US Navy and John Garstka in 1998. It echoed a new vision for war fighting using data and communication networks, to digitally link forces, enhance situational awareness and thereby increase effectiveness.

Situational awareness at the tactical and strategic level is the key to objective decision making, and in turn deploying forces to accrue gains and win battles. The underlying theme is to get to the right information, to the right forces, who in turn would take the right action to achieve the right objective. The NCW concept has since been embraced widely by military forces across the world, with the underlying motif of force multiplication through shared situational awareness and to fight a collective war. In our neighbourhood, both Pakistan and China have embarked on adopting the NCW concept as a tool for war fighting.

As per a Rand Corporation report titled ‘Systems Confrontation and Systems Destruction Warfare’ by Jeffery Engstrom, on how the Chinese armed forces seek to wage modern warfare, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) operational configuration does not exist in peacetime, and would be purpose-built taking into account the scope, scale, and abilities of the adversary’s operational systems in each warfighting domain. The evolved configuration would combine operational forces, through integrated information networks. Thus, pointing out that networking would form the central tool in employing Chinese forces in any future imbroglio. China is on its path to preparing to fight in the future, on a fifth-generation war construct.

A fifth-generation air war construct encompasses and combines aspects of network-centricity, combat cloud, multi-domain battle and fusion warfare ( This is where the future battle space is headed. The fundamental frame of such a war is based on interconnectivity for instantaneous information sharing, quick decision making and integrated action. This requires a four-layered grid arrangement, as a way of war fighting i.e. sensing grid, information grid, effects grid and command grid to form what can be called as the global information grid (GIG) that covers the entire battle space.

Within the GIG, a sensing grid would detect, track, and identify targets and an information grid would receive, process, store, protect and communicate information quickly and securely. These grids form the basic geometry to make the big picture of the battle. Sensing grid would comprise anything ranging from dedicated sensing systems, based in space, air, sea or land, up to even the single soldier on the battlefield. Each sensor would be an individual node with ability to upload information to what can be termed the ‘combat cloud’. The combat cloud is the repository of sensed information from which entities can extract the combined big picture enhancing situational awareness. The combat cloud would also enable targeting information and designation to be pushed from one node and extracted by another without the need for platforms to communicate directly with each other. This would have many tactical advantages, i.e. an aircraft could engage targets without having to use its own on-board sensors.

In the 26 February 2019 attack on the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) terror camp in Balakot town of Khyber Pakhtunwa province in Pakistan, the Indian mirages were unable to fire the Crystal Maze missile owing to bad weather and cloud cover. In a networked arrangement, target information would have been gleaned from the satellite picture of the target area, stored in the combat cloud, and the Crystal Maze launched. Likewise, in an air-to-air combat, aircraft could engage targets without having to use their on-board sensors and could instead launch weapons using the radar picture of a networked AWACS.

Shooters manned or unmanned would form the effects grid. They would engage targets based on sensor grid information. The aim is to create desired effects by optimal use of manned and unmanned aircraft, surface-to-air missile systems, electronic jammers and cyber systems using the most appropriate target information. The command grid connects the decision-makers. In this grid construct, the control function relates to passing instructions from commanders to subordinate elements. The key lies in effectively combining all grids to set the pace and tempo of own operations so as to stay within the enemy’s OODA loop. Being complex and wholly data and connectivity dependent, connectivity will always need to be guaranteed despite vulnerability to physical attack, electronic jamming and cyber-attacks.

In combining network-centric thinking, the combat cloud and multi-domain battle, it is apparent that a fifth-generation war would be complex and complicated. In our future operational environment, we would be sucked into fighting a fifth-generation war since the Chinese are developing their network with the four multi-layered grids. A major thrust for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is to build a networked air-space defence force structure that can meet the requirements of ‘informationised operation’.  (

The Indian Air Force (IAF) would have no choice but to match up with the battlefield complexity to win a war in the future. This would involve building an air force capable of waging a fifth-generation war and training for the core missions to be conducted in a network-centric environment. This implies designing and setting up a multi-grid structure, as described above. Primarily, the sensor grid to be functional with the AWACS intermeshed with other airborne, space-borne and land-based radar and other sensors. Furthermore, shooter systems such as surface-to-air missiles, multi-role air combat fighters, armed UAVs, armed helicopters, air-to-ground weapons, AEW&CS, flight refuelling aircraft all networked and trained to perpetuate a networked attack, networked defence with networked warfare support. Eventually, it will be the acumen in formulating networked tactical level actions that will define how we fight a networked war.

The IAF already has a secure encrypted Air Force Network (AFNET) operational since 2010, facilitating enhanced communications and data transfer for the air defence setup. The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) connecting data of all ground-based radars and AWACS rides on the AFNET. The IAF will now have to get all its manned and unmanned platforms, ISR systems, Surface Based Weapons and space based systems to ride on a secure wireless network to enable data transfer not only to and from the IAACS, but also between platforms and C2 centres to complete all elements for network-centric operations. Satellites would need to be linked not only to serve communication needs but also ISR needs and location/guidance as well. While the IAF may have had considerable success in networking its ground stations, it is still far from being a truly networked force.

The basic blocks necessary for building network capability are software defined radio (SDR) and an operational data link (ODL), both of which will have to be indigenously developed. A SDR is a reconfigurable transceiver with mobile communication standards, where signal processing including encryption is done through software instead of hardware. Its communication functions are realised as programmes running on a suitable processor with different transmitter/ receiver algorithms. A military-grade data-link network requires that SDRs be highly jam-resistant and encrypted. As per media reports, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing SDRs in collaboration with an Israeli firm.

Although, SDR forms an important component of the ODL, it is the other components like the RF generator for waveforms and those that blend information on to radio waves that also need to be developed and intermeshed together. ODLs use data link standard communication protocols on the Time Division Multiple Access principle to receive and transmit data to/from linked entities. Multiple ODLs would be required in our particular case to cater for linking equipment of various vintage, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), technologies and types since each have different communication protocols. Typically, different ODL networks would also be required for linking different segments within the air force, such as fighter aircraft and UAVs, Air Defence radars, satellite-based sensors, command centres etc for there is no thing as a ‘universal’ network that will connect all entities in one go. The IAF will have to formulate ways to achieve connectivity and interoperability between segments and different ODLs.

Multiple ODLs (similar or dis-similar) are integrated through gateways, translators, interfaces and correlators as part of the GIG architecture. This is usually done by equipping certain core assets, such as AWACS and satellites, with multi-link interface units, to serve as intermediaries between assets operating on different datalinks. ODLs are the prime means to communicate information, data, pictures and messages from and between various combat elements, on a near-real-time basis. Processed data from various sensors is transmitted on the ODL to form the updated operational picture which is continuously and automatically updated by each node. ODL gateways are the most complex to design as they translate concepts across multiple ODL types by listening to incoming information on all ODLs and putting them in context and content before sending to a client. The information must be complete, accurate, and up to date.

ODLs usually work in the VHF/ UHF radio frequency band (typically 250-1,250 MHz). This frequency range limits the exchange of information to users within line-of-sight of one another; hence the compelling need to network links via communication satellites so as to exchange data at beyond-line-of-sight ranges. Designing an architecture to such a level of translation requires significant expertise on the part of the ODL network designer and developer because there is no standard that fully defines how this should be done. Incidentally, Pakistan has indigenously developed, what they call, their National Data Link (NDL), linking the JF-17s, Mirages (Rose Upgraded) and presumably F-7PGs. Link-17 connects further with Link-16 (on the F-16s) via an interface on their AEW&C. As per media reports, SDR and Interface units were imported from South Africa, while the ODL was developed inhouse and has been operational since 2015. India’s DRDO community will have to likewise put together all their scientific ingenuity to design ODLs that meets the IAF’s requirements as import may not be a viable alternate.

The IAF’s transformation to a network-centric force would not be easy. Apart from development of technology, it would entail absorbing concepts, developing doctrines, tactical and functional tenets to arrive at war-fighting manoeuvres in a networked environment. Training would be another major issue. Along with training of combatants, decision makers at all levels would need training for reading the composite operations picture, assessing situations, giving executive orders and re-allocating resources. This would call for several major conceptual shifts in conducting NCW from the current way of doing military business, specifically, adopting a new way of thinking i.e. network-centric thinking and applying it to operations with a focus on enhancing combat power.


To get the complete act together, and benefit from the envisaged combine, is a tall order. Several key impediments would have to be conquered before the IAF could drive its networked operations to meet the threats of the future. Since the task is mammoth, the IAF could consider establishing a separate directorate to oversee the transformation. The directorate would not only overlook and steer the development of the SDR, ODL and gateways, but also get platforms, weapons and sensors network-ready along with developing concepts and tenets of war fighting and training. The department would have to encourage innovation to create flexibility to readily network future airborne assets at will, such as UAVs, UCAVs, fifth-generation platforms, military satellites etc. The directorate could also serve to develop data-link solutions for linking with the army and navy for joint operations. Although network integration within each arm would be a service responsibility, the greatest benefit of a network-centric system would be its interoperability at the multi-domain level i.e. data-link connectivity between entities in the land, sea, air, space and cyber domains.

The implication of becoming a fifth-generation force is the vulnerability of its networks to intrusions, by the enemy, that could restrict, disrupt or inhibit air force operations. Hence, it would also be imperative for the IAF to simultaneously cultivate capabilities to defend and protect its networks. For this, creating cyber defensive and offensive forces along with a robust cyber ISR would be the key requirement. Cyber-air operations would then have to be the new norm to a future war.

NCW is an approach to warfare that derives its power from the effective linking or networking of the entire warfighting enterprise to increase lethality, speed, and responsiveness. Most advanced air forces have adopted this approach to war fighting and the IAF would have to transform likewise to effectively contest a war in the future. Our adversaries have already started evolving as a networked force and are racing forward in assimilating its prowess. The IAF must undertake this transformation at a rapid pace lest the fast-developing technological asymmetry between the air forces gets detrimental to India’s deterrence posture.

(The writer is a former commander-in-chief, Indian Air Force)


Call us