21 Corps logs on to 21st Century solutions


Sudarshan Shakti was no ordinary military exercise. It showed that the Indian Army is ready to embrace network-centric warfare. Avalok Langer reports

Illustration: Naorem Ashish

A HORDE of cameramen jostled to capture the rising sand cloud as another blast rocked the desert. Four Mi-35 attack helicopters degraded the enemy defences as a line of T-90 and Arjun tanks entered the battlefield, leading the way for an all-out infantry assault. As two helicopters flew in, dropping off a team of para commandos, another swooped to pick up an injured soldier from the desert.

Muscle flexing: Mi-35 helicopters
Muscle flexing: Mi-35 helicopters, Photos: Avalok Langer

Involving over 60,000 military personnel, 500 tanks, UAVs and IAF fighter jets, Sudarshan Shakti was the largest military exercise India has seen in the past 20 years. But the real military marvel was tucked under camouflaged nets 25 km away: the Joint Operations and Information Room (JOIR). Linked to a standalone server and an array of antennae, the JOIR, set up by the army’s 21 Corps, is the first practical application of network-centric warfare (NCW) at the corps level in India.

Armies around the world are becoming leaner and meaner thanks to technology. In today’s information age, where “one ounce of silicon in a computer can have more power than a tonne of uranium,” according to US cyberwarfare expert Alan D Campen, NCW is the new way to fight.

Imagine a combination of Skype and Facebook enabling a soldier to send video feeds, information, orders and suggestions up and down the chain of command, all in real time. Soldiers pinned down by fire can directly ask for an air strike, guiding the pilot or UAV to the target themselves. UAVs, satellites, human intelligence and multiple services combine to provide the central command with real-time information on the enemy’s movements. NCWenables battlefield transparency, allowing you to seize the initiative by predicting your enemy’s movements and links every aspect of the military to a single command centre.

“For mobilisation, we are dependent on the nation’s infrastructure,” says 21 Corps Commander, Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer, “and in the past few years, India’s infrastructure has developed substantially. We have gained from the information technology revolution that hit India. Combined with better weapons systems, we were able to take stock of our capabilities and set up a joint command centre.”

Muscle flexing: Arjun and T-90 tanks at the military exercise
Muscle flexing: Arjun and T-90 tanks at the military exercise

The JOIR looks like a high-tech set from a Bond movie. It comprises four shipping containers that could be assembled anywhere in two hours flat. Multiple screens line the walls and officers shuttle between maps and workstations. Each station was responsible for a separate set of information. Some access real-time intelligence reports from UAVs, direct satellite feeds for the first time (a separate military satellite is in the pipeline), special forces, radars and enemy intercepts. Another station maintains a constant link with the IAF. Others look at supplies, artillery and enemy degradation. A data wall allows the commanders to view information as and when required, as well as stay in touch with different headquarters and centres simultaneously. The biggest breakthrough is a constantly updated map, with red and blue dots denoting enemy positions — movement and our responses.

“It is an interactive centre, where information flows up and down the command channel,” explains Brig Rahul Bhardawaj. Through radio, real-time visuals and information coming up the channel allows the commander to plot enemy movements on a map, analyse enemy capabilities and structure the army’s response. They are able to provide troops on the ground with supplies, reinforcements, air support and visuals of enemy camps, enabling them to plan their point of attack and even strategically launch rockets 90 km into enemy territory.

“Sometimes there are advantages in entering a field late, we can learn from others’ mistakes,” says a senior officer. The lessons learnt are reflected in the NCWset-up. The Corps HQ is connected through LAN, the only way to hack into the system is physically. Choosing to stay away from civilian networks, the connectivity down the channel is through the army’s own intranet systems, ASCON and AREN.

Imagine a combination of Skype and Facebook enabling a soldier to send video feeds and info, all in real time

“I’m not saying that hacking is impossible, but the system has to be hacked from an army computer. As we develop our NCW capabilities, we will have to develop firewalls and protection systems, that is the only way,” says the officer. To prevent an information overload, data is screened at a Unit, Brigade and Division level before being forwarded to the Corps level. The apex body will remain the Corps and each system will not overlap. “We have opted not to follow the networks-of-networks system. Soldiers out on the field have only a one-to-one link with their respective command centre, they are not connected to the entire network,” explains a senior officer. “Say five soldiers are behind enemy lines, one is captured and is unable to access the kill switch on the radio. The enemy will not be able to tap into the NCWsystem as the soldiers radio set is not connected to the entire system. They provide information up the channel, which is processed on a need-to-know basis. Our system will recognise the change in voice signature and modulation and we will cut off that particular set.”

The 21 Corps NCW set-up will be analysed and a workable model will be established after more tests. All this is part of the new-look army. Foreign Policy magazine has labelled 2011 as the year of India’s military expansion: “India has kept pace with its neighbour to the north and, in some areas, is actually exceeding it.”

India accounts for 9 percent of the world’s total arms transfers, making it the largest weapons importer in the world. India is slated to spend an estimated $80 billion on military modernisation by 2015 and over the next 20 years will acquire 103 new warships, compared to China’s 135. The army has also commissioned four new divisions to be set up along the eastern border, the biggest such expansion in decades.

BUT INDIA needs to move fast, according to the 2010 white paper on China’s Defence; not only is it expanding its navy, it has started the process of putting an NCW system in place under the new doctrine of ‘people’s war under modern conditions’. “Nobody is clear about China’s NCW capabilities, but one thing is clear: inspired by the US model, they are putting all their technology, capability and resources into developing their network,” explains strategic expert Ajai Shukla.

The 21 Corps NCW set-up will be analysed and a workable model will be established after more field tests

Though Pakistan is lagging behind in the race towards network centricity, the threat on our western front remains constant. A system like 21 Corps JOIR could have helped India avoid the Kargil War and 26/11 through better surveillance and faster responses. China’s growing interests in the region continue to antagonise India and in the world of “realistic deterrence”, where war is avoided through mutually assured destruction, we have to keep pace.

While 21 Corps has achieved a first, there are many hurdles in the way. At present, the army’s bandwidth is limited, only audio and visual feeds; the bandwidth needs to be increased. Anti-hacking and cyber warfare systems need to be constantly updated. India is still faced with the problem of cross-border communication deep in enemy territory, a system needs to be developed to enable such communication. India needs to remember the lessons learnt by the US: over-dependence on technology is detrimental, boots on the ground cannot be replaced by technology and even your enemy has networks.

“This exercise is about capability building, making us a leaner and meaner army,” explains Lt Gen Langer. “All these latest technologies create battlefield transparency not only for us, but also for our enemies. However, wars are won by superior plans and a will to win.”

Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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