Net-centric warfare: Transformational challenges

Net-centric warfare: Transformational challenges


<< So far, the world has only witnessed Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) operations between the leader in technology and a weaker adversary. But what if the conflict takes place between nations having matching NCW capabilities? Should technologically weaker nations develop their own capabilities or directly acquire them from others? How can the technology gap between countries be bridged? Countries throughout the world, are facing several such challenges… >>

Present global strategic space includes sub-conventional operations, low intensity conflicts, counter terrorism operations, cyberspace, aerospace, maritime, amphibious operations and recently, anti satellite (ASAT) operations. In such a scenario, question of being NCW-enabled or not, loses its relevance for any nation. In a distributed operational environment both, in time and space with multiple stakeholders, the need to be networked was never as pressing as it is.

The term ‘network-centric’ as applied to warfare was probably borrowed from network-centric computing which arose through advances in information technology that allowed computers to interact with each other while using different operating systems. NCW suggests a new and technologyfocused concept for fighting future wars and conflicts employing technology as opposed to the traditional personnel, tactics, and logistics in providing a force the access to new and previously unreachable types of information. The ability to operate with this new type of information provides the armed forces an advantage broadly characterised by significantly improved capabilities for sharing and accessing information.

The advantages NCW brings to the battlespace are particularly relevant to the tactical and operational levels of war, but they impact all levels of military activity from the tactical to the strategic.

Though, NCW now has a track record of successful operations in Iraq and Afganistan wars, still, NCW is a developing concept, not yet fully formed for deployment in a full scale conflict. Transforming today’s programmes and platforms into a network-centric one will require developing and refining networkcentric concepts of operation and evolving them with doctrine, organisation, command approach systems, and other components needed to run the military. Only the US and a few others have made noticeable progress. The future shape of the NCW doctrine can only be guessed at best. So far, we have witnessed NCW operations by the leader in technology vs weaker adversary having near zero NCW capability. Future conflicts between nations having matching NCW capabilities would redefine the roadmap for development of NCW technologies.

Nevertheless, the fact that NCW has emerged as a winner in the above operations is driving the armed forces across the globe in that direction. Developing nations have realised that military too has to adopt to a new way of thinking – NCW way of thinking in a fast developing network centric environment in commercial as well as non-military areas around it. However, due to a gap of 10-15 years in technology as compared to developed nations, implementing NCW infrastructure and developing network centric capabilities poses a variety of challenges to the military leadership of these nations. For most of the developing nations, often, it is a question of priority. In a tight/ moderate economy, due to the high cost of implementation of NCW, invariably the axe falls on modernisation projects. Absence of proven templates or best practices for its development and implementation further adds to the dilemma.

Issues and challenges
NCW capabilities need to be developed in a sustained manner over a period of time. Even, its implementation in the US has not followed a specific order or relationship that is required. The entire process of transformation to NCW regime is not clear enough to be imitated or templated by the developing nations to execute the concept from start to finish. Putting cart before the horse philosophy in developing NCW technologies, that is, developing technology based on NCW concept rather than exploiting a time tested technology in developing the new combat systems as done in the past, may not be feasible for many small nations considering the cost and time involved in R&D efforts. This may lead to various nations coming together and forming a new alignment around those having a fully realised NCW platform. They may directly acquire NCW capabilities and train themselves in a much shorter timeframe at low cost. This may, perhaps, suit a few small nations having nuclear capability. Of what use can an NCW platform be against an adversary having no or very limited NCW capability but possessing nukes? Brute force shall prevail in the end!

However, fast developing economies like China and India which have large armies shall not like to depend on import of military hardware and software in the long run. Considering the fact that other than the US, no other nation can be termed as fully NCW capable – be it possession of technologies or having a force fully fine-tuned to NCW drills/ procedures. In view of the above, have the developing nations actually missed the bus? Can’t the gap of 15 years in technology be bridged in due course of time? Some of the developing economies already have sufficient, if not the best, resources and industrial base either in place or growing at a rapid pace. In a way, these nations have an advantage in learning from Iraq and Afganistan Operations to design and develop their own NCW platform to suit their strategic doctrine and needs. How and how much to go about implementing NCW doctrine and in what timeframe are the issues confronting the leadership of developing nations?

NCW is no substitute to key leadership issues and the act of war, intelligence, training, initiative, etc. One of the major tenets of NCW paradigm is creating a real-time situational awareness at all levels, thus, assisting in reducing the OODA loop, time taken in the kill chain. Human aspects of waging a war, that is, morale, commitment, pride, still remain essential ingredients in any kind of operation. Net-centric Operation (NCO) can do what technology permits it to do. What technology can’t do, NCO can’t do. This issue, often, brings to the fore the dilemma in deciding a full fledged adoption of NCW concept for any large sized armed force, because it involves complete transformation of battle drills and procedures from top leadership down to a soldier in the TBA. One could also argue that a NCW enabled military soldier is coming to mission areas already trained and prepared to work in tense military operation environment within NCW enterprise; however, it would be pertinent to mention that, first, even the most realistic training could not encompass all uncertainties of real life; and second, tactics, techniques and procedures for conducting NCO are yet to be fully developed, therefore, nobody knows whether the NCW doctrine will be present in all participating arms in a tri services-joint operations scenario. Absence of face-to-face human interactions may have a non-complementary effect on knowledge conversion between tacit and explicit in a so-called situational aware network.

Another important fact which obstructs a rapid transformation to NCW is the presence of legacy combat platforms and military hardware which is not network ready in all the developing nations. This is true in case of even most advanced nations as well. Replacing legacy systems is a time consuming and cost prohibitive process which no developing nation can afford.

A nation’s armed forces cannot be effectively networked unless the nation itself is not networked. Though, a separate backbone network for the services is essential due to the security issues, it needs to be integrated with the countries, state and non-state networks for its non-operational needs. The logistic trail/ footprint which a fully dedicated network for the armed forces would leave favours offloading services like MET, weather, GIS, communication/ backbone infrastructure to other government agencies. This can only happen if all the government agencies are suitably networked, which, often is not the case with the developing nations.

Considering the resource constraints, allocation of priorities to other pressing needs of a developing nation, the leadership is left with no choice but to adopt a phased NCW implementation strategy to be executed in a timeframe spread over 10-15 years. This kind of a timeframe not only presents a huge risk of being left out of the loop in the global scenario, but also renders the nation vulnerable to external/ internal threats. Hence, it becomes extremely important to identify areas within the above cycle of implementation for the fast track deployment. Certain low cost technologies can be implemented across board. Whereas, high cost replacement of legacy combat platform be restricted to a few numbers during initial period in selected units for integration tests in the NCW network as well as for training and validating NCW drills and procedures.

While employing this cart-beforethe- horse methodology, tentative doctrine, warfare theory and defence management should not be planned as if the actual pieces of network-centric warfare are already developed, and only an organisation is needed to put the pieces into place. The basic premise behind NCW theory is that it is a totally new and evolved way to conduct military operations and that the practices of the past are inefficient, if not irrelevant. NCW is a system of systems dynamically linked with distributed and dynamic information processing.

The term RMA postulated that they are usually declared after the demonstration of an event, invention or discovery. NCW is based on the premise and demonstration of internet technologies encompassing concepts and protocols like distributed data warehousing, interconnected communication suites, X.25, open source codes and host of other technologies and services. These are all shaky inferences, the failure and compromise of which are being routinely reported almost on a daily basis. The term evolutionary is probably more appropriate and relevant in transforming to NCW doctrine.

To a large extent, NCW is shooter, sensor and information oriented; yet the tenets of mass, speed and manoeuvre are eclipsed. System and platform independence fades under the concept. Consequently, if the system is poached, sensor or shooter platforms are compromised. Apprehensions of the leadership and issues as brought out, yet at the same time to meet the inescapable requirement of implementing NCW, an evolutionary, incremental and hybrid approach is most suited for the developing nations. NCW revolves around two fundamental components – sensors and shooter elements. Both, when integrated through the C2 grid become the NCW system. Sensor grid can be established at a faster rate as compared to legacy shooter grid. Similarly, C2 system can be implemented and validated in a much shorter timeframe compared to other components.

Network infrastructure – A countrywide robust backbone network for the services is the most essential requirement for the realisation of NCW doctrine. Its installation is independent of the development cycle of the other NCW components. It is a national asset and should be viewed and implemented as such with no relation to futuristic outcome of the NCW doctrine. It must be in place within 2-3 years from the word go. Datalinks are the new weapons of the information age.

Selective vs full scale deployment of NCW assets
While selective, evolutionary and incremental deployment in a phased manner is recommended for the armed forces as a whole, a full scale deployment of these assets is more suited for small sized forces, for specialised operations, deep strike missions, joint operations teams. This can be achieved in a very short time and cost and can give realistic feedback and confidence to the main programme. For the phased implementation though atleast, one fully functional corps level formation along with its joint services elements in each sector/ theatre is the minimum requirement to exercise, train and adopt NCW battle drills and procedures before jumping onto the next phase.

Technology acquisition – Ironically, the most daunting obstacle to achieving a fully networked force is the same acquisition process that will make it possible. There is general consensus that platforms and systems must be joint, interoperable and built as much as possible around common technology. In reality, industry, services and government priorities invariably clash from time to time.

Sensor grid – Development cycle can be eclipsed to a 3+2 year cycle; first three years, go for the full scale deployment of sensor elements and network assets in the selected force by implementing customised COTS solutions, training and integration process. Customisation to be carried out for achieving interoperability with other elements of the network by using standard indigenous protocols and security solutions. Carry out concurrent limited integration with shooter grid elements and C2 system with feedback to central coordinating agency. For remaining two years, execute implementation in other sectors, expanding network domain, incorporating modifications/ enhancements based on feedbacks.

Shooter grid (10-15years) – shooter grid will always lag sensor and C2 system even in the case of developed economies. Complex combat systems consume considerable amount of time and cost in their development. Their absorption in the hands of troops takes another few years. Thus, replacement/ upgrading of legacy systems is a mammoth effort and always cost prohibitive. At best, limited fielding of network ready systems can be done to validate NCW concepts for initial two years. Subsequently, move in the direction of new procurements. The fact that 90 per cent of the shooter grid platforms are legacy systems in most of the developing nations necessitates development of external interfaces (both Hw & Sw) for their integration to the NCW system. These steps can be completed between 2 to 5 years thereby achieving a functional NCW system in place, even by the developing nations.

C2 system – can certainly be in place in a cycle of 3-5 years. Developing the C2 grid would involve customisation of existing applications to suit NCW requirements, acquiring/ developing new applications using standard protocols and indigenous security solutions. Development of a robust network management system and testing it under all conditions, real or simulated. Training of manpower, developing a habit of staying connected and situationally aware amongst commanders at all levels are prerequisite to successful exploitation of C2 system.

Instant collection and collation of information plays a major role in reducing the OODA loop, that is, reducing time taken to activate the shooters even for the legacy platforms. NCW concepts do not have any direct effect on enhancing the lethality or rate of fire of the combat platforms. Hence, if a nation can implement net-centricity in its C2 and sensor grids with a reasonable level of handshake with the shooter elements in a timeframe of 5-7 years taking bureaucratic delays, project time overruns, budgetary constraints etc into account, it certainly can’t be viewed to have missed the bus!

Bandwidth is the informationcarrying lifeline of any network, and network-centric operations devour signal bandwidth. As technology proliferates and expectation for information ‘right now’ increases, NCO will constantly crave for more and more bandwidth, thus, imposing recurring challenges to the services and industry. As such, developing nations are below poverty line with regards to available bandwidth and spectrum exploitation. They must make constant efforts to manage bandwidth more efficiently, with better communications technology, and command-and-control systems that are able to prioritise and manage signal flow in better ways. Technology is always vulnerable, and very often fragile, hence networks must be tough, flexible and redundant. False or incomplete technical information can distort or impede network effectiveness.

As most sensors and communications links are deployed through space platforms or aircraft, networked operations have benefitted from the freedom of action due to absence of space threats, so far. Space-based sensors and communications assets today face no significant anti-satellite (ASAT) threat. However, the scenario is bound to change in future. In the likely eventuality that ASAT threats emerge, network operations may become suddenly vulnerable. Even now, active jamming efforts and other interference can threaten the flow of information.

For any developing nation to pursue its goal towards NCW, its government must be an active and constructive partner. The government must come out with support policies and budgets that help to shorten procurement cycles and adopt capabilities based acquisition for systems as much as possible. The leadership must resist pressure to protect legacy programmes from changes or even termination, because those changes may be necessary to produce networkcapable systems. Many aspects of the procurement process, at times, discourage industry from adopting net-centric thinking. Traditional single-service procurement leads vendors to develop equipment in relative isolation with little concern for interoperability. Systems built by different vendors are often unable to communicate and share data. Vendors too have legitimate concerns about exposing proprietary technology and information to their competitors.

Most of the developing nation’s military leaders, political leadership, industry leaders and analysts appear to understand the NCW potential, and the challenges, they face. Timelines drawn and the suggested roadmap for implementing NCW doctrine may vary from one nation to another. A lot will depend on the leadership’s resolve and commitment in preparing and sticking to the comprehensive plan for transformation. It may take a decade or two before the NCW concepts are fully realised but, certainly it is in the nature of transformation that the process will never be complete. Network-centric operations were applied unevenly, and imperfectly, in Afghanistan and Iraq, but those campaigns have validated the concept’s potential. They have also provided learning opportunities to correct gaps, fix problems, and chart a course by the armed forces undergoing the transformation.


  • Volume 10, 2008 Baltic Security & Defence Review,
  • Alberts (2002:135), 3. The challenge and promises of network centric warfare by Luddy