Steel to silicon: A digital way to make combat forces more lethal, accurate

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The First Gulf War of 1991 — the official name for 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 sailed almost leisurely through the streets of Baghdad before flying into buildings through open doors and windows.

But while the television viewer took vicarious pleasure in that sanitised dance of death, the armed forces of other countries were looking carefully at the new, high-tech US military whose battlefield networking routed Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army in less than 96 hours. 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, and strike with unprecedented precision. In World War I, it took an estimated 12,000 bullets to hit a single soldier. But now, even while the infantry continued to spray bullets, there was a growing role for “precision guided munitions” (PGMs). These weapons harnessed several new technologies such as satellite and airborne surveillance, digital communications, inertial and satellite navigation, and electronic jamming.

But what impressed observers 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 informatised conditions.” As is evident from its most recent White Paper of 2015, the PLA is committed to enhancing its combat capability through systematically structured “command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” 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 — tanks, warships or fighter aircraft — the focus is now on the 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 allows it to be faster than the adversary on the “OODA loop” — the sequence of Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. This boils down to detecting and identifying targets, deciding which in-range weapons to destroy the enemy 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-20th century 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, there is little conviction in the Indian military’s pursuit of a networked force. 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 forces over digital communication links provided by a high-tech “software defined radio” carried by individual soldiers. The object was to transform each soldier — traditionally no more than a “rifleman” – into a “digital entity” who would receive data from multiple battlefield sensors such as unmanned aircraft, radars, ground sensors and even lookout posts. In turn, each soldier would transmit the battlefield information available to him, feeding into a comprehensive “battlefield picture” that every combatant could tap into.

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 and 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 would share information and improve battlefield transparency.

However, the disturbing fact is that a large number of technologically challenged senior officers of the army remain more comfortable with traditional weapons platforms than with digital networks. The army’s recently-retired vice-chief ordered BMS to be shut down to conserve money for legacy equipment like rifles.

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty
To understand the advantages of a networked military, one need look no further than Uber. When 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 channels, directing each unit individually.

The central challenge in developing modern digital networks is to create small and rugged equipment that combat forces can carry, and the most important of these is portable radio communications. “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.    

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