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Modern features of armed forces communications

It would be more appropriate while mouthing ‘jointmanship’ to describe the project for connectivity between the three Services- Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force-as being one for the ‘Armed Forces’. Semantically, the Defence Communications Network (DCN) sounds appropriate but is it happening? Perhaps that may at some point result in the desired true jointmanship.

As things stand the Air Force has its own communications network, the Army upto a point, and the Navy now has a dedicated satellite of its own. To be able to achieve the desired result to seamless and total connectivity between the three Services and other security-related establishments, it is now being touted that the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff is absolutely necessary bringing the nation to have to decide which should come first, the chicken or the egg.

It is generally recognized that for the land forces to be able to achieve true jointmanship between all its ground and air elements the requirement for a Tactical Communication System is an imperative. However, how much more horrendous can it get if every Service has its own distinct radio set and the Army has to hand over additional sets to the other Services for any joint operation so as to be on the same wavelength? For the Indian layman it raises the question whether if three disciplined elements of the Indian Armed Forces are unable to visualize the demand and cooperate to create a strategic whole how will the appointment of a Chairman of the Defence Staff (CDS) help?

Delayed project

As things stand, work on the creation of the holistic Defence Communications Network was delayed because the Ministry of Defence was unable to decide in which category the project should be listed.  Whether the Tactical Communications System should come in the category of “make” (high tech systems) where private sector is allowed to participate and “make” (strategic and security sensitive systems) where the private sector is not allowed to tread. How much this has affected national defence can be judged from the years lost.

The TCS project received Cabinet approval not once but several times and it should have become operational with the Armed Forces by the year 2000 but finally the contract for the Defence Communications Network has been awarded last year to HCL Infosys and the deadline is two years. Hopefully something will become available by 2015.

A consortium of HCL Infosys Ltd, Tata Power SED and Larson and Toubro has been created which will coordinate with the Defence Public Sector Undertaking Bharat Electronics Ltd. The Government will fund 80 per cent of the development cost and the rest will be shared by the private sector companies. Specifically for the TCS segment the companies will make individual prototypes and the best bidder in terms of cost and technology will be required to handle the whole project.

As envisaged the TCS will have the following inbuilt capabilities: A new generation meshed network using state-of-the-art developments in microprocessor, radio and satellites in light weight configuration and  high mobility vehicles which will form the  mobile communication nodes connected in grid formation using proven completely off the shelf technologies to avoid reinventing the wheel. High bandwidth with voice, video and data; high capacity point to point radio backbone with multiple redundancies; high capacity point to multipoint wireless access at the user end are other prerequisites.

Other qualitative staff requirements of the three Services are that the system should be network of  robust and survivable trunk and access radios; redundancy and scalability based on satellites; inbuilt protection against cyber and electronic attacks using firewalls and frequency hopping spread spectrum techniques;  encryption and multi-level network security; real time management of spectrum; integration with legacy systems like the extant satellite communications and the troposcatter system that has proven its worth during the Kargil conflict.

The most basic requirement, however, is that there should be effective interoperability within the Army and other Services during joint operations.

This may not happen if the three Services and Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) develop the software individually, there will be attendant problems of interoperability. If the vital interconnect is missing the DCN actually will be hollow hardware without the connected software.

Satellite communication

In the context of the far flung outposts along the northern Himalayas both along the Line of Actual Control with China and the Line of Control vis-à-vis Pakistan which is where the threats to national security lie, the dependence on the satellite communications system could yet prove to be tenuous.

It is being argued that given that the Chinese have demonstrated a satellite kill capacity with its anti-satellite missile (ASAT) test some years ago it would make eminent sense for China to hit Indian communications satellites first so as to cripple tactical communications in the areas of its concern-the Himalayas-that are so largely dependent on that one source of contact. Hence it would be more prudent to design a tactical communications system that would be terrestrial rather than be overly dependent on the satellite network which could become the first target of a new Chinese gambit in the Himalayas.

It is for this very same reason that, learning from the experience of communications during the Kargil war when there was severe attenuation of signals between two points on a mountain slope the STRATEGIC AFFAIRS had suggested in one of its editions that the Indian Army should not be in a hurry to declare the troposcatter as obsolescent. It should be retained as a standby irrespective of the sophistication of the future communications systems that the Armed Forces are to acquire. It could well be the only equipment immune to interception, jamming and cyber attack in a fluid battlefield condition.     

Nonetheless, even as the DCN is incubating it is time the Armed Forces jointly create the requisite common standards and protocols because this makes for the extant interoperability constraints. Little progress has been made in evolving common standards and protocols for the military. Large number of command and control equipments and networks are being established by individual Services but lack common standards and protocols. Additionally, several intra-Service interoperability constraints exist.

Even as this process is underway the Army is involved in trying to optimize the use of what remains within the defence sphere after the electromagnetic spectrum was truncated to allow greater civilian usage under the 3G program.

The Indian Army is working on what it calls the Network For Spectrum (NFS).  It has been planned as an exclusively optical fibre based ‘Nationwide Communication Network’ for Defence Services. This will be a countrywide secure, multi service and multi protocol converged next generation network based on exclusive and dedicated tri-Services optical transport backbone.

NFS will be a “Next Generation Network” based on Highly Resilient and Virtualized IP/ MPLS backbone and Gigabit Optical Access Networks based on Fault Tolerant Carrier Ethernet transport technologies. The complete network will be controlled from Geo Redundant Central and Regional Network Operating Centres for Army, which otherwise depends upon old plans of AREN, ASCON and SatCom.