Secure communications: Bridging the gap

Secure communications: Bridging the gap


<< Communications is quintessential requirement for the armed forces to realise their dream of becoming a net-centric force. A number of initiatives have been taken up by the forces in this regard. However, there is a need to speed up the process so that the gap between the strategic and the tactical level is bridged at the earliest >>

The Indian Armed forces have declared on several occasions their intent to become a net-centric force in the foreseeable future. The intent is undeniably laudable, but its implementation would imply navigating through many an impediment. To have an effective net-centric force, it is necessary for the armed forces to buttress their information infrastructure both at the strategic and the tactical level. These levels are by no means disparate or exclusive, but cater for seamless information exchange. A large number of endeavours are presently underway to build capability in this regard. Some of the projects that have been initiated are the Network for Spectrum (NFS); the Defence Communication Network (DCN); the Air Force Network (AFNET); the Army Switched Communication Network Phase 4 (ASCON Phase 4); the Tactical Communication System (TCS); the Battlefield Management System (BMS); and the Fighting Infantry Soldier As a System (FINSAS). AFNET has already been fielded by the Air Force. The others are in different stages of a longwinded procurement process.

Strategic Communication
Strategic communication, even today, is reasonably well developed being sustained by the ASCON for the Army, the AFNET for the Air Force and terrestrial communication over hired media for the Navy. Some part of this information infrastructure has been augmented incrementally through projects funded out of revenue grants. To give a further fillip to the existing strategic infrastructure, two major projects are in the pipeline.

The Network for Spectrum
NFS was obtained by the defence services after protracted deliberations. The Network to be laid out by the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) was in lieu of some spectrum spared by the defence in accordance with the guidelines given out in the National Frequency Allocation Plan (NFAP), in the 1800 MHz band. A total of 25 MHz in 3G band and 20 MHz in 2G band was spared and, as a compensation of sorts, it was decided that the defence department would get a pan India dedicated network consisting of approximately 60,000 km of optical cable with geo-redundant data centers and communication nodes to cater for the needs of all three services. This was to be executed by BSNL under the aegis of DoT. The network would be fully secured with indigenous encryption equipment.

Though the project was to commence in August 2010 (in fact the first OFC tender was issued in April 2010), there have been inordinate delays due to perceptional differences between Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Ministry of Communications and IT (MOCIT) and cost over-runs. An amount in excess of Rs 10,000 crore has been sanctioned by the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure for the purpose. A fresh tender for OFC was issued in November 2012. Once in place, the network is expected to significantly improve strategic communication of the three services.

Defence Communication Network
AT present, the three services operate over exclusive networks. Interoperability is achieved to a very limited extent through ad hoc measures, an arrangement far from satisfactory. While there has been perennial clamour by all the three services for inter-service synergy, the very fundamental aspect of providing the basic wherewithal in terms of interoperable communication has often been glossed over. It would be a great fallacy to assume achievement of synergy if commanders at functional levels cannot even talk to each other and exchange requisite data required by the other service.

It was with the intent of providing this basic framework that DCN was conceived over a decade ago. The DCN is to be a tri-service strategic network, initially on a hired bandwidth, and migrated to the OFC being laid out as part of the NFS at a later stage. There would be a satellite overlay to cater for redundancy/ remote area locations and disaster recovery sites. It is to provide for voice, data and video services over IP to strategic elements of Army, Navy, Air Force, Headquarters (HQ) Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) and Interim National Command Post (INCP). There would be over 100 entities to cater for the requirement of the three services (Army, down to Corps Headquarters; Naval stations; Air bases; HQ IDS; INCP and Andaman Nicobar Command).

An organisation called Defense Communication Agency, to be staffed by all the three services, has been created under Directorate General of Signals to oversee the implementation of the project. The tri-service applications are to be developed by HQ IDS. The contract has, after prolonged delays, been awarded to HCL Info Systems, the agency involved in executing AFNET. It is expected that this network will help break free of the shackles of service-specific ownership communication networks as well as information. It will enable, inter-alia, uninterrupted and seamless flow of imagery and airborne, ground-based and ship-based sensor information to enable decision makers of the three services to take holistic, informationbased strategic decisions. It is for this reason that the development of applications assumes utmost importance at this stage.

Tactical Communication
Tactical Communications for the Army is a cause for utmost concern. The problem, as it manifests today, can be attributed to several factors:-

  • The gaping chasm between the strategic infrastructural development, which has proceeded at a fast pace absorbing commercial technologies and those existing at the tactical level.
  • The geographical realities of deployment of our forces in extremely inhospitable terrain.
  • The sheer number of troops deployed along the International Border, Line of Control, Line of Actual Control or for counter insurgency/ counter terrorist operations at any point of time.
  • A near absence of R&D activities for tactical communication systems, being content with minor enhancements in the Army Radio Engineered Network (AREN), improvisation and minimal upgradation of VPS, Stars V and HB/ HX sets, which constitute the current radio inventory of the Indian Army. This is compounded by ambiguous and subjective references to Transfer of Technology (ToT) in the DPP.
  • The need to conform to particular form factors. For example, in the context of our troops in mountainous areas, it is important to have light-weight, manpack or hand-held radio sets in abundant numbers.
  • Inadequate thrust on satellite communication largely due to insufficient transponder space on our indigenous satellites.
  • Multiplicity of directorates involved in decision making.
  • An over-cautious establishment in the wake of allegations of malpractices.
  • And inevitably, the long-winded procurement procedure. This has far greater impact on technological procurements with a high rate of obsolescence (if it takes five years on an average, an optimistic assessment, to procure a system; it would be obsolete by the time it is introduced into service).

There is a dire need to bridge this gap between the strategic and the tactical at the earliest. This can be achieved through the following:-

  • Replacement of AREN with TCS at the earliest and expeditious progress on BMS and FINSAS.
  • A relook at the entire radio philosophy for the Indian Army with an eye on contemporary/ futuristic technologies like Software Defined Radios, Mobile Ad-hoc Networks, broadband radio relays and so on.
  • The entire radio philosophy needs to be formulated by DG Sigs with inputs from other Arms & Services. For example, for communication for FINSAS, inputs from DG Infantry would be required. Similarly for FICV, inputs from DG Mechanised Forces. This is extremely important to ensure interoperability and smooth flow of information across all echelons.
  • Considering our geographical realities, a positive thrust for acquisition of handheld, manpack satellite terminals and lightweight Satellite Terminals on the Move (SOTM) is a must. This is especially so for troops deployed in the mountainous terrains where line of sight problems exist. For achieving this, it is important to prioritise the availability of sufficient transponder space in requisite S, Ku and Ka bands on our indigenous satellites (this has suffered a setback in the wake of the Devas/ ISRO episode).

Project TCS
It needs to be stated upfront that Project TCS is not a panacea for all deficits in tactical communications. With a view to explain TCS, an examination of the topology of Army Radio Engineered Network (AREN) in brief would be in order. AREN was primarily meant for strike formations in plains as an area grid communication system with switches at nodes called Communication Centres (Comcens) interconnected through Radio Relay (Microwave) links forming a communication grid. The Formation HQ (called Entity) drew their connectivity to the grid, using radio relay, by ‘hooking’ on to one/ two of these maze of inter-connected Comcens. Normally, 17 Comcens were considered adequate to cater for requirements of a Strike Corps and approximately six for a Pivot Corps. The area coverage in terms of real estate was approximately 100X100 km. The number of entities corresponded to the number of Formation HQ to be connected. Limited number of entity status also existed to cater for unique requirements like an ad hoc Formation HQ or units on special missions.

Each Formation HQ was able to obtain 24/12/6 analogue channels for outward connectivity. There were some radio trunking systems similar to the concept of mobile cellular technology of today (a pioneering effort of those times). The communication was over secure media using indigenous encryption. The plan AREN was conceived in early sixties and was fielded in late eighties. The AREN served the formations for over two decades. Due to the inability of the AREN system to support contemporary demands, Signals is increasingly resorting to improvisation to give the desired level of user satisfaction in terms of bandwidth requirements for passage of large amount of data. It is felt that the AREN system is not suitable in its present form to support field formations.

TCS was conceived in the early ‘90s to replace the existing Plan AREN System and is intended for utilisation in Strike/Pivot Corps from Corps HQ to Battalion HQ, while AREN was intended to provide communications down to Brigade HQ level only. It is larger in scope and aims at absorption of contemporary technology. The proposal for TCS, steered by the Corps of Signals, was the subject of considerable iteration between the MoD and the Service HQ. Eventually, it was decided in 2008 to progress the project as a ‘Make’ programme. An Integrated Project Management Team (IPMT) was constituted by the DG Acquisition and a feasibility study was ordered. The Defence Acquisition Council gave the go ahead in 2009. After obtaining the recommendations of the IPMT and the process of short-listing, the following agencies were selected — Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL); and a consortium of L&T, HCL Infosystems and Tata Power SED.

The general topology of AREN has been given out earlier with a view to acquaint the reader with a similar philosophy of deployment of TCS. In case of TCS, there would be Network Communication Nodes (NCN), Network Nodes (NN), and Network Sectorial Nodes (NSN). These nodes will be connected through highcapacity backhaul radio relay. The NSNs would go down to the level of battalion HQ. The salient features of TCS architecture would be:-

  • A state-of-the-art meshed network consisting of mobile communication nodes to form a grid
  • Plug and operate capability; integration with strategic networks
  • Point to multi-point wireless access to users through field wireless systems
  • Quick deployment and tear down capability
  • Converged services of voice, video, data over Internet Protocol (IP)
  • Bandwidth to meet all operational requirements
  • Resilient, self- organising and adaptive network
  • Efficient and robust network management system
  • ECCM capability and network security
  • Be able to support all tactical C3I elements in the tactical battle area.

We have seen that it has taken over two decades from the conceptualisation of the project to its present stage in our convoluted procurement procedure. There are yet a large number of stages to be crossed before the project manifests on ground. Each of these stages have some bit of ambiguity which would become more pronounced as we go along, especially as TCS is one of the first ‘Make’ programmes.

Successive stages can be briefly enumerated as follows:-

  • Formulation of a Project Definition Document (PDD) by the IPMT and promulgation of GSQRs. (ongoing)
  • Assessment of capability of developing agencies and shortlisting of minimum two production agencies. (completed)
  • Preparation of a Detailed Project Report (DPR) by the two nominated agencies.
  • CFA approval.
  • Design and development of the prototype.
  • User trials and evaluation of the prototype.
  • Solicitation of commercial offers.
  • Contract negotiation.
  • Award of contract.
  • Project monitoring and review.

Although the steps enunciated are given in the DPP, a reiteration of the same has been felt necessary to gauge the dimensions of difficulties the project could encounter. Some of these, inter-alia, could be:-

  • Assessment of capability in a complex system consisting of a large inventory of equipment, systems and sub-systems.
  • In case the evaluation is based on each individual component of the prototype, would the RFP for commercial offers be given to both the production agencies? This would throw up issues related to integration.
  • Size of the prototype. This is important as the funding for development by the MoD would be contingent on its size.
  • Aspect of sharing of development cost between the MoD and the development agencies, though it is unlikely to be a serious contentious issue as the DPP states this to be ‘normally’ in the ratio of 80/20 per cent.
  • As this programme has started with only two production agencies being shortlisted, a resultant single vendor situation cannot be ruled out. In such a case, there is likely to be escalation in cost.
  • As such a complex system would depend largely on Transfer of Technology (ToT), ambiguities in the DPP with regard to ToT and proprietary issues need to be resolved.

These problems are by no means insurmountable. It is for the DG Acquisition and the IPMT to be able to forecast impediments likely to be encountered and plan out strategy to overcome these.

In this era of transformation to a lean, mission oriented force, the power of networks has to be exploited to the maximum. It is for this reason that communications in both the strategic and the tactical domain have to progress with utmost urgency. While NFS and DCN would bolster strategic capabilities and inter-service synergy, there is a dire need to give an impetus especially to tactical communications for reducing the widening gap and empowering the cutting edge units and sub-units in the field.