Information as Weapon: Why Communications are the Lynchpin of the Air-Land Battle

As the military becomes network-centric, communications are set to play a decisive role in the outcome of battles, thereby impacting the overall war objectives. India’s armed forces need to be at the cutting edge of communications in order to achieve operational efficiencies in the battlefield

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By Rakesh Krishnan Simha

A key objective during war is to neutralise the enemy’s war potential by every possible means and to protect one’s own. How military forces – deployed in the air and on the surface – achieve this depends not only on trained personnel but also on their ability to communicate with each other. In the combat zone – especially in an air defence or close air support scenario – the reaction time to meet a specified threat is of prime importance. In turn, the reaction time is connected to air-to-ground and ground-to-air communications. In this backdrop, the operational efficiency of a country’s military is to a huge extent dependent on the reliability of its communications network.

Since the Air Force has the unique role of fighting not only its own battles but also participating in those of the Army and Navy as well, for the Indian Air Force, communications play an even more vital role. According to former Chief of the Air Staff P.C. Lal, the air force is more mobile and faster than the other two forces and has literally a bird’s eye view of the whole area. Therefore, it is for the other two services to take full advantage of the available possibilities and capabilities.

As Lal explains in his book ‘My Years With The IAF’, “The success of attacks over enemy lines of communication and their supply lines such as railways, roads and bridges, or sources of energy such as oil refineries, storage facilities and gas plants depends as much on intelligence provided and reconnaissance as on the ability to communicate this intelligence to the air force.”

On the other hand, the inability to communicate with one’s own forces can lead to fatal outcomes. This happened at the outbreak of the 1965 War when IAF pilots flying outdated and poorly-equipped Ouragans started strafing their own troops below. In a tragicomedy of sorts, the army’s plight ended when Pakistani fighter planes arrived on the scene and shot down the IAF aircraft. The reason for this fratricide was that the IAF had no way of communicating with frontline Indian Army formations. Clearly, warriors who lack continuous connectivity on the battlefield can easily lose their way in the fog of war.

Effective communication can not only allow you to degrade the enemy’s war fighting capabilities quickly, it can save lives. In the Vietnam War it was the ability of American ground troops to call in both supporting air strikes and evacuation helicopters that saved hundreds of American lives

The situation improved in the 1971 War when the IAF was able to conduct repeated strikes against Pakistan Army positions based on intelligence provided by the Indian Army. The most spectacular outcome of this coordination via secure lines of communications was the bombing of the Governor’s building in Dhaka by a MiG-21 while the East Pakistan administration was in session. The Governor ran out in panic and sought refuge in the Red Cross building, signalling the end of the war from the Pakistani point of view.

Effective communication can not only allow you to degrade the enemy’s war fighting capabilities quickly, it can save lives. In the Vietnam War it was the ability of American ground troops to call in both supporting air strikes and evacuation helicopters that saved hundreds of American lives. In his end of war report, American air ace Captain Steve Ritchie described his F-4 Phantom fighter’s radio as “the single most important piece of equipment”.

Inside The Battlefield

The dynamics of air to ground – and vice versa – communications can well decide the outcome of a closely fought battle and can contribute to the success or failure of the overall war objectives. For instance, while calling air support, the army commander’s decision is based, in part, on the recommendations of his field commanders. The field commander sends in recommendations for tactical air support on the requests of the subordinate commands and his own analysis of the overall tactical situation, including ongoing military action and anticipated enemy initiatives.

When notified of the army’s requirements, the air force determines the number of sorties available for these missions based on the enemy air threat, availability of resources and the availability of profitable interdiction targets. Even if there is constant coordination between the air force and army commanders over how these sorties are allocated, the air force’s ability to commit its aircraft and schedule air strikes will be based on a number of factors such as weather, troop safety criteria and other operational considerations.

Air-Land Battle & Cold Start

In traditional military doctrine, flying in close proximity to land forces, air assets are intended to attack advancing ground units and weaken supply lines or destroy troop fortifications, thereby clearing the way for offensive operations. While these objectives are still important, the currently emerging Air-Land cross-domain doctrine is based upon the reality that modern air and ground forces are more dispersed – and therefore more threatening. Also, ground forces are now more vulnerable to longer-range air and missile strikes, drone attacks and guided weapons able to strike from high altitudes.

Increasingly, modern military forces are digitising the battlefield – building digital technology into aircraft, tanks, artillery and individual soldier systems so they are all able to communicate with one another or with the control nodes

The Indian Army’s Proactive Military Strategy, also known as Cold Start, is another driver of the communications revolution in the Indian defence ecosystem. Joint-service warfare as required by Cold Start mandates a network-centric warfare capability – the ability to coordinate geographically dispersed forces, including unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites, with advanced communications technology in a timely manner. However, the Indian military is only slowly building up a robust capability in this field. Indian reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities are currently not able to support a full-scale and swift implementation of Cold Start.

At any rate, these new concepts, when it comes to technical application, involve a fundamental shift towards using information itself as a principle weapon in warfare operations. The tactical use of information to organise and enable effective combat involves a range of tactics – such as using air-assets as nodes across a larger air-ground combat scheme, firing ground weapons to attack enemy air defences and leveraging the altitude and range of surveillance aircraft to pinpoint targets for land-based attacks.

Command And Control Architecture

The global revolution in military affairs (RMA), which is inspired by the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been ramping up the role of communications in the combat zone. Increasingly, modern military forces are digitising the battlefield – building digital technology into aircraft, tanks, artillery and individual soldier systems so they are all able to communicate with one another or with the control nodes.

A command and control architecture to act on information received requires advanced command, control, communications, computers and intelligence processing (also known as C4I) systems. Automation of command and control systems have incrementally moved from C3I, to C4I, C4ISR (SR stands for surveillance and reconnaissance) and now C4I2 (intelligence and interoperability) SR in order to meet the demand for real time, robust, reliable and efficient command and control systems. “By reducing the information-decision-action loop to a matter of minutes, advanced command and control systems have the potential to allow a commander to control a battle from one moment to the next. This will also result in ‘information dominance’ of the battlefield and confer battle-winning advantages,” writes Lt General (R) V.K. Kapoor in the Journal of Defence Studies, Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Sensor To Shooter

The lynchpin of RMA is Network Centric Warfare (NCW), which provides a real-time sensor-to-shooter loop. This enables military commanders to take instant decisions even as information is shared among platforms and personnel to order the weapons to be deployed. NCW is now a vital force multiplier – without this capability, no country can survive today for long against a good adversary.

Pioneered by the US Department of Defence, NCW relies on computer processing power and networking communications technology to provide shared information of the battle space among armed forces. This shared awareness increases synergy for command and control, resulting in superior decision-making, and the ability to coordinate complex military operations over long distances for an overwhelming war-fighting advantage.

While the IAF and the Indian Navy now have dedicated military satellites, the Indian Army is still to get one… The Army must be quickly sanctioned an exclusive military satellite because the next stage in Net-centric warfare is providing real-time communication ability to the infantry soldier

The Corps of Signals is working to make the Indian Army a network-centric force. The vision of the Corps is “to achieve electronic and information superiority for effective functioning of the Indian Army”. The responsibilities include setting up a converged, robust, broadband and secure IT infrastructure, both at peace and operational locations of the Indian Army.

A Network for Spectrum project is being implemented by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) in exchange for spectrum being released from the defence quota. According to the army, the network will provide additional overlay and strengthen the army’s communication infrastructure. The Indian Army is also planning to upgrade the cyber security of its networks.

Another potential game changer is the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that India inked with the US in September 2018. It not only allows the Indian armed forces to be more interoperable with the US military, but also allows India to be more interoperable across its own systems.

Satellites For Failsafe Networks

In the 1930s and 40s, the defence forces were dependent on either physical wire telephone lines or elementary wireless communications in the HF and VHF bands. From then, as technology progressed all around, the services kept pace and modernised their communication systems. Today we are using contemporary microwave technologies for meeting our telephone communication needs and also the latest VHF and HF equipment for our air to ground, ground to air, air to air and point to point communications.

The emerging Army-Air Force approach seeks to move well beyond existing tactics to extend the range, power and multi-domain effectiveness of combat communications to include space. India has upgraded to military communications satellites that allow instantaneous communication from central military commands to remote parts. On December 19, 2018, India launched the GSAT-7A, which enables the IAF to interlink multiple ground radar stations, airbases and AWACS aircraft. The IAF will also use the satellite to control UAVs, which are currently being controlled from the ground; thereby boosting the range and flexibility of these drones.

A problem with communications satellites which are being substituted for fixed ground infrastructure is that they are becoming vulnerable to jamming, cyber intrusion and kinetic attacks. However, by offering battlefield commanders an array of options for communicating with troops, it may be feasible to sustain connectivity even in the harshest warfighting environments. So rather than avoiding reliance on satellites, the defence forces can use both military and commercial satellites – while some may be lost in wartime, enough will survive to get the job done.

While the IAF and the Indian Navy now have dedicated military satellites, the Indian Army is still to get one. This remains an inexplicable mystery considering that India has been launching all sorts of modern satellites, including spy satellites. The Army must be quickly sanctioned an exclusive military satellite because the next stage in net-centric warfare is providing real time communication ability to the infantry soldier.

If India is able to hike its defence budget in step with the threat perception in its neighbourhood or alternatively it is able to slash launch costs, one day a vast constellation of inexpensive communication satellites in low-earth orbit may provide enough redundancy so that no enemy can suppress the network.

Enter The Drones

Drones are primarily used for reconnaissance or attack, but their next big role will be in electronic warfare. They can be used to enter the battle zone to fry enemy sensors, jam communications, and find gaps in the enemy’s radars for friendly aircraft to fly undetected to the target. They can collect information from the field to inform commanders or armed drones on where best to strike.

In the backdrop of the drone strike by terrorists on the Jammu air base, the Indian Army is procuring anti-drone systems that will detect and jam or spoof hostile drones. According to media reports, a majority of these systems will only have the jamming feature option, which can disrupt the communication or navigation signals of a rogue drone. The Army is also ordering drones that will be able to spoof (take control of) enemy drones. While the jamming drones will have a range of up to 10 km, the drones with spoofing capabilities will have a 20-km range.

Around five private companies have sent in their bids and the order will be fast tracked under the provisions of the emergency procurement powers that were granted to the services last year by the government.

The Indian Army is also looking at drone swarms in a big way. These can attack in massed groups to overwhelm enemy defences, and can be a powerful force multiplier on the battlefield. In an anti-communication role, they can be programmed to fly under the radar and attack the enemy from behind. For instance, a swarm of 100 or more drones can take off from close to the border, enter Pakistan below radar cover. Once inside they can jam the enemy’s radars, overwhelm Pakistan Air Force AWACS and unhinge their decision making capabilities. With the enemy temporarily blinded, the IAF can carry out its deep strike missions.

With India having some of the finest IT minds in the world, information warfare is one area where it must take pole position. The thinking in the forces should be that enemy defences must be pulverised and his morale broken long before the armoured columns burst through the border

In comparison, the United States has a two-decade lead in this field. Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) gateway system, which is currently flown on four Global Hawk drones, has reached 200,000 combat operational flight hours. It was first deployed with the US Air Force in 2008 and has flown more than 15,500 missions.

The BACN system is a high-altitude, airborne communications gateway that translates and distributes imagery, voice and tactical data from a variety of sources, enhancing situational awareness communications and coordination for joint warfighters operating in all domains. The system has been deployed for a range of missions, including airdrop, convoy, humanitarian assistance, close air support, and theatre air control systems operations.

The BACN system provides persistent connectivity and operational support 24 hours a day, seven days a week in multiple countries, and has delivered a mission availability rate above 98% over the last 12 years.

Information As Weapon

According to a Mitchell Institute policy paper titled ‘Evolving Technologies and Warfare in the 21st Century: Introducing the Combat Cloud’, information itself is an indispensable connective tissue to networked cross-domain warfare.

This new concept, when it comes to technical application, involves a fundamental shift toward using information itself as a principle weapon in warfare operations. The tactical use of information to organise and enable effective combat involves a range of tactics – such as using air assets as nodes across a larger air-ground combat scheme, firing ground weapons to attack enemy air defences and leveraging the altitude and range of surveillance aircraft to pinpoint targets for land-based attacks.

India is a long way off from such cutting edge concepts, but the good news is that development and fielding of automated operational and information systems for various levels of operations from Army Headquarters to Battalion headquarters to individual soldiers are in progress. Integrated together with requisite communications, these systems will provide near real-time sensor-to-shooter links.

With India having some of the finest IT minds in the world, information warfare is one area where it can and must take a pole position. The thinking in the forces should be that enemy defences must be pulverised and his morale broken long before the first Indian armoured columns burst through the border.

–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda.