Opinion : Special Operations and GIS

Opinion : Special Operations and GIS


Lt Gen PC Katoch (Retd)

Indian government recently approved a proposal to set a tri-service Special Operations Command. In this article, the author takes a look at the preparedness of forces and stresses upon the need for India to build its geotech infrastructure

Geographic Information System (GIS) is crucial to modern war simply because no weapon system or for that matter, any operational information system (OIS) can be optimised without appropriate GIS. The confluence of GIS with OIS and management information system (MIS) is essential for capacity building for acquiring network centric warfare (NCW) capabilities. It is therefore, axiomatic that GIS is crucial to special operations.

Modern War
Rapid advancements in technology have revolutionised warfare. Battlefield transparency has made forces more vulnerable. The range and lethality of weapons have increased exponentially and the time factor has been greatly telescoped. Technology has ushered in stand-off and smart weapons and directed energy weapons that may be based on platforms on ground, sea, air and space. Cyber war has the potential of paralysing the adversary even before war is declared. Then are the rising costs of war, the pinch of which is felt by even a superpower like America. A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, USA, dated January 14, 2013 mentioned that the cost of the US war in Afghanistan for the period 2001-2013 totalled up to an incredible USD 641.7 billion. Concurrent to all this has been the rise of asymmetric and proxy wars wherein the use of irregular forces has become the norm, their strategic importance overshadowing conventional and even nuclear forces, which are now being exploited even by powerful countries like the US and China. The lethality of irregular forces lies in the fact that they operate in a battlefield that is without borders and these forces defy all rules and regulations. War between two conventional forces has not been fought after the 2005 Russia-Georgia War and recent years have witnessed even the US and NATO forces battling irregular forces. It can therefore be surmised that the domains of ‘sub-conventional’, ‘cyberspace’ and ‘electromagnetic’ are becoming increasingly important over the ‘conventional’ and ‘nuclear’ in the conflict spectrum. Enhanced importance of the ‘sub-conventional’ automatically calls for increased requirement of special operations.

Special Operations
‘Special Operations’ is a term that gets mentioned in generic manner. These are operations that are typically performed independently or in conjunction with conventional military operations. However, this description needs to be viewed in the backdrop of conventional conflict becoming rare, as discussed above. Hence, within the ambit of ‘special operations’ are the more focussed operations which are undertaken essentially by special forces. Such special operations are becoming increasingly important because of the threat posed by irregular forces.

Special Operations and GeoInt
Geoint comprises imagery, imagery intelligence (IMINT) and geospatial information. The full utility of geoint comes from the integration of all three, which results in more comprehensive, tailored geospatial intelligence products for meeting the wider requirements of the military, especially in execution of special operations. Geoint supports special operations, giving them the ability to rapidly respond to threats providing geo-referenced visual and data products that serve as foundation and common frame of reference. These products include interactive maps, virtual flythrough and walk-through mission scenarios.

US-NATO forces operate in areas other than their own countries; geospatial coverage is focussed on area of operation other than homeland. Post 9/11, the US undertook major restructuring of government agencies and formation of National Geospatial Geospatial- Intelligence Agency (NGA) by merging in it elements of CIA, Defence Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO), State Department, etc. Within the US, the US Geological Survey is responsible for survey and mapping, base data at scale of 1:24K, which is available on internet. Data for operational areas on foreign soil is prepared by agencies like NGA / Army Geospatial Centre (AGC). More importantly, geospatial data is provided by a single source (NGA-AGC) and interoperability pan military is ensured through common standards, protocols and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Other major nations too are restructuring to establish agencies dealing with this important aspect of intelligence. While we may not draw comparisons with US in terms of infrastructure at this stage, we will surely have to reach a bare minimum level to match our status as an emerging regional power including in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Geointelligence in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, NGA provides the base data which is supplemented by the AGC. Imagery and elevation are through the BuckEye programme; colour imagery (48 mega pixel) at 10-15 centimetres resolution and LiDAR based elevation data with one metre resolution. Situational updates like IED incidents and deployments are forwarded by users up the chain for consolidation at regional HQs. Geoint cells are located at each HQ. Engineer detachments use ‘ENFIRE’ to collect data. Collated data from all sources is used to refine digital maps, and is issued to units at a frequency of three months.

Indian Scene
Within the existing setup, adequate resources in terms of remote sensing, ELINT payloads and cartography are not available to produce high quality fused data. The National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI) has been a good initiative but its networking with concerned government agencies relevant to geospatial database and updates is still catching up. More importantly, NSDI deals with only some aspects pertaining to creation of metadata of available geospatial data and does not cater to inputs from intelligence community or for that matter the defence services. In spite of the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) as well as Group of Ministers (GoP) on issues related to streamlining the intelligence agencies in the country, a lot of work is yet to be done on fusion of intelligence data. While the DIA, NSDI and National Technical Research Organization (NTRO) have been established, such steps are insufficient to deal with aspects pertaining to geoint.

India’s National Map Policy 2005 defines two series of incompatible maps; Defence Series Maps (DSM) based on WGS 84 / LCC and Open Series Maps (OSM) based on WGS 84 / UTM. There is no mention anywhere of the elevation system to be used — whether it should be WGS 84 or another. Moreover, the policy does not cover the nautical and aeronautical charts. The policy is restricted to small scale maps and is silent on responsibility for attribute collection. The overall implications are that the country has two incompatible projections and associated different grids will be an operational nightmare. Similarly, the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) is vested with the authority to acquire and disseminate remote sensing data. All data of resolutions up to one metre is distributed on a non-discriminatory basis. All data better than one metre resolution is to be screened and cleared by appropriate agency prior to distribution. This policy also talks of specific sales / non-disclosure agreements for data better than one metre resolution. The implications of this policy are that it places undue restrictions on genuine users even though point five resolution data is available in the public domain through Google Earth, etc

The fact is that much better spatial data is available in public domain and by extension to our adversaries. Also, restrictions are imposed on connecting applications (used by security forces) with internet. There is undue security concern on base geospatial data. There is no mechanism to exchange geospatial data amongst the various agencies. We have separate agencies for topographic data and remote sensing with no data interfaces between the two. Finally, there is no clear area of interest defined or agencies tasked to prepare and update spatial data. Efforts pertaining to geospatial data and intelligence within the three services need to be integrated to help field a fully functional C4I2 system. Individual service approach cannot suffice. No automated battlefield management system can be fully exploited unless quality data is provided to it as an input. Our efforts to enable production of geoint would meet most of the data requirements of both C4I2 as well as Tactical C3I Systems of the three services. The need to bring intelligence and geospatial information under aegis of one single agency cannot be under estimated and should not be relegated to a later day. While GIS for special operations is still some distance away, the NCW capability essential to optimise special operations appears a decade away.

While the need for India to bridge the sub-conventional conflict capability was never more, it needs to optimise special operations through the spectrum of conflict, providing an enterprise GIS and requisite C4I2SR capability to the forces at the earliest.