Digitisation of battlefield is no longer a futuristic fancy. It is now an operational imperative. Indian Armed Forces commenced their digitisation in mid-90s. All Service Headquarters have achieved varying degrees of net-centricity. The necessity to fight and win in a modern digitised battlefield has led to the development of capabilities to fight a digital battle.
To support boots on the ground, the modern battlefield scenario employs Remotely Piloted Vehicles, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, weaponised-drones, Swarms, et al. Such employment cuts across all aspects of operations including logistics, battlefield transparency, surveillance, weapons systems, fire control, medical support, repair and maintenance. All these assets need to be networked securely to shape outcomes.
Digitisation offers unimaginable possibilities in Operational Art, Intelligence gathering, shaping the Battlefield, logistics and medical support in Tactical Battle Area (TBA). All this has become possible due to explosion in Information Communication Technology (ICT).
However, it poses a major demand on communicators. They are no longer just Telecommunication Service Providers (TSP) but must also provide services for Applications (ASP), Internet-SP (ISP), Cloud-SP (CSP), Network-SP (NSP), Managed-SP (MSP), Managed Security-SP.
In order to perform all these SP roles, they need an information infrastructure that is reliable, secure, with adequate bandwidth and one which is omni-present and supports plug-and-play to all authenticated military entities.
From an operational timeline perspective, the network must precede the arrival of military entities (roll-out speeds) and offer low-latency network and yet survive in an intense Electronic Warfare environment. It must be simple in design and easy to manage. All this is a communicators challenge.
Satellite Networks, High-Altitude Aerial Platforms (HAAPs) do assure omni-presence and capacity but ensuring large footprint and endurance is very expensive in terms of ground and aerial/ space infrastructure. Also, anti-Satellite capabilities of adversaries and large footprint makes these an easy target and impacts survivability and availability.
In Digital TBA, 5G (or 4G/LTE) and High-capacity Mobile Adhoc Networks are strong contenders. 5G, unlike its predecessors has an advantage of starting off as a dual-use technology. It still has a major challenge of utilisation in TBA. Release 17 and 18 will incorporate Radio Access Network connectivity over Satellite and HAAPs and enable 5G to expeditiously create ICT infrastructure in TBA.
The US Department of Defence is carrying out customisation of 5G in two tranches in collaboration with technology leaders like AT&T at a cost of approximately $600 Million and a deadline of 2025. India also needs to customise 5G for use in TBA. It is already four years behind in this race. Are the Indian Armed Forces willing to wait that long?
Off-grid networks are designed to be truly infrastructure-less, host-less, suitable for deployment on ground, air and sea and even ground-to-air and air-to-air networks. Seamless integration of off-grid with secure military networks like ASCON has been validated in an operational environment.
Roll out of networks for the digital battlefield is long overdue.