Information warfare: Net-centricity in modern warfare

Information warfare: Net-centricity in modern warfare


<< World over, armed forces are gearing themselves up for digital warfare. India is no different. This article attempts to annotate the basic features of ‘information’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘net-centricity’ and translates these to what might be relevant to the execution of information warfare in the Indian context >>

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”
– Albert Einstein

The three terminologies
The advent of Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and its enabling features in prosecution of warfare in the modern era has generated considerable interest among the global military fraternity. Thus the terms ‘information operations’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘net-centric warfare’ have become part of routine glossary of military terminologies under the overall ambit of Information Warfare (IW). We are aware that the idea of harnessing the information-specific technology in conduct of warfare was conceived in the Russian military theology. Subsequently, it found formal fruition through strategic confabulations in the United States (US) before being propagated among other advanced militaries. Indian Army too responded to the concept of IW as early as 1990s. Since then, it has made considerable efforts to harness the advantages of ‘information’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘net-centricity’ in its operational, logistic and management functions. There are studies carried out, goals set, resources committed, projects undertaken and military exercises conducted under the unique parameters that these terms signify. In practice however, the stage when these parameters might instil confidence among the military fraternity, for them to depend on these under conditions of war, is far away yet.

India’s strategic concerns are limited as compared to the western powers. It may therefore be logical to define the aforementioned aspects of IW to own understanding and purpose.

‘Information’ and ‘Knowledge’
It is not that the domain of ‘information’ and its fallout, ‘knowledge’ are of recent advent, these had been before as well – Alexander had the information of the crossing places across the river Jhelum and used it to gain knowledge of a suitable one to outflank King Porus during the Battle of Hydaspes in 326 BCE. Thus ‘information’ is but an eternally existential phenomenon; the object of information – like terrain, enemy forces, deployment, etc., – exist naturally at any point of time, though they had not been so easily accessible as they may be today. The difference has been conditioned by proliferation of science and technology that has made it practicable to access the ‘information’ needed and analyse it to register the relevant ‘knowledge’, that in turn generates actionable ‘intelligence’ to make planning and execution of operations more comprehensive, coordinated, accurate and timely. It therefore may not be off the mark to state that these terms, as appropriated by western strategic thinkers, need to be translated to the Indian military lexicon. Indeed, in the context of contemporary Indian Army, it may be more meaningful to subsume the terms ‘information’ (data which have to be accessed, registered and then transmitted) and ‘knowledge’ (which have to be acquired by collation and analysis of the information) into the better understood overall definition of military ‘intelligence’.

We may now delve further into the aspects of access, registration and transmission of existential ‘information’, for it to be processed into ‘knowledge’ that is relevant to the tactical and operational situation that the Indian Army might be confronted with.

Information access and registrationModern technology has advanced to an extent that many of the scientific expositions in theory have found practical materialisation. Thus, it is possible to sweep the environment to register information of natural, man-made and war-like attributes that exist at any point of time over vastly spread areas; besides, it is also possible to penetrate through man-made or natural camouflage to detect such attributes which might normally remain obscured. This is an operation that requires electro-magnetic devises to be coupled with mechanical linkages and electronic articulators, and packaged with requisite motive power to move and manipulate. Access to the object of information may be accomplished both in static mode (such as surveillance radars, geo-synchronous satellites, laser designators, aerostats, observers and ‘moles’) or in manoeuvrable format (such as orbital satellites, aircraft, balloons, reconnaissance radars, intelligence teams and ‘agents’). Having gained access to the objects of ‘information’, the next step is to register the signatures emitted by these objects. This activity is programmed by activating various kinds of ‘sensors’ that might function on optical, acoustic, thermal, seismic or even visual mode. Registration of the input signatures is carried out in ‘digital’ rather than analogue mode for ease of processing into ‘knowledge.’ In short, modern technology enables creation of a ‘system’ of many components, to accomplish coverage of extensive areas as well as heretofore inaccessible objects, to register information remotely. Point to note is that the tactical decisions regarding areas of search, timings, objects of interest and informational queries continue to remain in the realm of military art – technology may assist but not elevate the application of military acumen.

At this stage, the ‘information’ accessed and registered is in raw form, besides being burdened with unnecessary details. These have to be transmitted to be filtered, collated and analysed to, as stated earlier, cull out the relevant ‘knowledge’.

Digitisation and transmission of inputs
Here again, technological advancements play a pivotal role. Thus as aforestated, instead of registering the emission of photo-particles or other radiations from the objects in visual, acoustic, photographic, descriptive or analogue mode, this is done by electronically converting the emitted signatures into digital code – ‘bits’ and ‘bytes’ in millions of electronic chips, so to say. This is a simple process of primary ‘digitisation,’ built into the sensing devices, that renders the inputs extremely accurate, highly revealing and perfectly formatted for near-instantaneous ‘transmission’ over vast distances.

Thus the accessed and digitally registered information is ‘transmitted’ by means of carrier electromagnetic waves, to be recorded at the intelligence control centre. Digitisation of input data also facilitates near real-time user customisation, filtration and preferential formatting of information through application of mathematical algorithms (software), to convert it into ‘knowledge’. This is the process of secondary digitisation whence the raw data is edited, trimmed, elaborated and formatted according to its usage. However, to reiterate, the decisions regarding focussing these processes to the required parameters of relevant knowledge remains an exercise of military art.

Having filtered and marshalled the raw informational inputs according to the parameters of relevant knowledge by means of the task-dedicated ‘systems’ discussed above, the stage is now set for the ‘system of systems’ to generate actionable military ‘intelligence’.

Intelligence Preparation of Battle-space (IPB)
This again is a vastly overarching strategic term devised by the western thinkers, which in India’s limited operational context may be described as the process of ‘intelligence appreciation’ and implementation of ‘intelligence plan’. In short, IPB is but a traditional exercise, firstly, of marshalling operational intelligence, and secondly, assimilation of that intelligence to strengthen the process of planning, deployment and control of operations. Of course, modern military technology has elevated that exercise to a near-perfect level. Further, modern networked transmission systems have rendered the intelligence inputs as highly transferable across vast distances in near real-time. These advantages facilitate the best orchestrated conduct of battles in which each element of battle is deployed and employed to the optimal capability, thus achieving a force-multiplication effect.

IPB is highly relevant in the Indian context as it would permit the most effective exploitation of decisive weapons and equipments of war, limited as these are either in terms of availability – being imported at high costs – or in terms of sophistication in those which are indigenously produced.

Logistic intelligence
So far we have confined the discussion to operational intelligence. However, there is no gain saying that a similarly structured cycle of information collection, knowledge processing and intelligence gathering could elevate the Indian military logistics to a state of near-perfectness in terms of military force-projection, movements, supply-chain management and so on. More, it would cut costs, for utilisation of savings elsewhere. We may term it as the ‘Intelligence Preparation of Logistics’, IPL in short.

We have discussed as to how information is sensed, digitised and processed into knowledge and then converted to actionable intelligence, before being disseminated across the areas of operations. To affect these transfers, there are ‘transmission’ links connecting the highest, the lowest and parallel echelons of the military structure. When seen in totality over an area, sector, zone or theatre, these links emerge in the form of complex ‘networks’ of multiple to-and-fro exchange of raw information, processed knowledge, and finally, actionable intelligence. Obviously, besides performing the role of ‘information highways’, net-centricity also extends to the exchange of command, control and management instructions as well as feedback. Simply illustrated, net-centricity might have prevented Marshal Grouchy from diverting from Napoleon’s intended plan of preventing Marshal Blucher’s Prussian Corps from joining up with Duke of Wellington at Waterloo; the European Alliance would then have been defeated and the world would have been different from what we find it today.

We may therefore observe that what is referred to by ‘digitised battlefield’, even ‘digitised battle formations’ and ‘net-centric warfare’ – described by Chinese strategists as ‘warfare under conditions of informalisation’ – implies the exercise of traditional art of war, with contemporary weapons and hardware, under vastly superior abilities of generation and dissemination of intelligence, command and control instructions and feedback. ‘Net-centric warfare’ therefore enhances manyfold the capabilities of surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition and analysis, best engagement of weapons and equipment, exchange of intelligence, passage of instructions and feedback. It therefore imparts the ability to marshal and commit various battle groups and its elements in as advantageous manner as the prevailing tactical situation might permit under the overall sobriquet of IW.

Information warfare
The features discussed so far, particularly that of net-centricity and IPB, all put together comes under the ambit of IW. Thus originates the concept of Information Operations (IO). IO is a continuous process of building up ‘Information Superiority’ that would permit, at the time of war, the ability to dominate in manoeuvre, orchestrate successful engagements and target accurately, all duly backed up with optimal logistic support – prosecution of IW in nutshell. In larger context, IO also extends to political, social and economic regimes. That has led to formation of dedicated ‘commands’ or ‘departments’ in many advanced nations, but most purposefully by the US, China, NATO and Russia.

The scenario for the Indian Army
India is rich in information age capabilities, but short in its military wherewithal. The Indian Army reflects that state. Our commanders are enthused by the vast prospects offered by IW, and the staff is keen to harness the resultant advantages in combat and logistic force-multiplication. Even then, and after nearly two decades of concerted efforts, the Army’s ability in operating under networked conditions remains stymied – may be a formation or two can field that capability for short durations, nothing more. The basic reasons for the excruciatingly slow process of assimilation of this modern tool of war may be ascribed to the following debilitating conditions:

  • Many of the aspiring practitioners of IW have neither had the opportunity to delve deep into its technical nuances, nor had the benefit of actually operating, assimilating and exploiting the ‘information’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘net-centricity’ systems that are the core elements of IW. In the first case, there is no relief from the burden of routine work to devote to new learning and experimentation, while in the second, there are not enough systems to work upon under realistic conditions. Technical competence among most such practitioners being but superficial, the question of operational exploitation of IW therefore remains hazy and distant, obviously so.
  • We are aware that the idea of modernisation of the war machine and its articulation through the ‘system of systems’ is contingent upon a good grounding in technical training, ready accessibility to the systems and devolution of control down to the lower rungs of the hierarchy. Such a dispensation has gradually pervaded over India’s entire civil sector, public as well as private, including the traditionally fixated government machinery. Paradoxically however, in the Indian armed forces – particularly within the Army – these enabling features of IW remain somewhat afflicted with fiscal limitations and archaic procedures, unable to break free of orthodox instincts and mental inertia that prevails over civilian and military defence policy makers.
  • Net-centric war is best prosecuted with indigenously designed equipment, when the operative ‘keys’ and ‘codes’ remain classified. Unfortunately, defence research and industry in India has not girdled up to produce indigenously military-customised sensors, data processing hardware, reliable software, data transmission switches, etc, nor has the Army demanded the development of such wherewithal. Government’s past policies too have been hostile to the indigenous defence industry, which not only prevented its growth, it even sabotaged joint ventures. Availability of wherewithal of IW is therefore limited and unreliable.
  • By far, the most debilitating slippage in the Army has been in its neglect to build the digitised database. Just as it would be foolish to fight a war without maps and range and equipment tables, prosecution of IW cannot even be conceived unless there is readily accessible ‘data bank’ of terrain, weapon and equipment attributes in digitised form and in a specified format of algorithm. It would take many decades of concerted hardwork by dedicated ‘digitisation units’ to accomplish that stupendous task of creating a comprehensive digitised data bank. Till then, net-centricity of Indian Army may remain a lame aspiration.

    It is time to proceed beyond the superficial platitudes of ‘information’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘ net-centricity’. The executive level must have wider opportunities to learn, assimilate, think and harness the advantages that these features might offer. Only then would nation’s warriors be able to exercise their first-hand initiative and experience to apply the properties of ‘information’, ‘digitisation’ and ‘net-centricity’ in winning wars.