India's Defence Communication Network: A highway with no traffic

In December 2004, when then prime minister Manmohan Singh pressed the button at the power house of NTPC’s Chutak hydroelectric project on River Suru south of Kargil, the whole power house including the colony housing the 150 engineers and employees lit up to the applause of the audience. I wonder if Manmohan Singh was aware that this was all the lighting this power house and the contingent manning it would provide for the next few years.

On querying officials present during the event it was discovered that no transmission lines had been laid to any of the villages planned to be electrified since that was the Jammu and Kashmir government's responsibility and NTPC had no idea what was planned by the state government — talk about knee-jerk development and Parkinson’s in policy-planning. So, almost a decade went by before Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally dedicated the Chutak hydroelectric project to the nation in August 2014. How many villages were eventually lit, how many transmission lines were still to be laid in 2014 are things only the state authorities would know.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

So it happened that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar dedicated the Defence Communication Network (DCN) to the nation on 1 July 2016. He complimented the three services on putting in place a communication system to facilitate jointmanship, also stressing the need to keep the network secure. Aside from the Press Information Bureau release, there was not much coverage in national newspapers. Media reports that emerged described the DCN as follows:

Will be used by Army, Navy, Air Force and the Special Forces Command; facilitate a more prompt response time due integrated technology; network across the country including islands and remote locations; will enable the defence forces to share voice and video data over secure network; being installed on most defence vehicles, and; can run on both terrestrial as well as satellite mode of communication.

The media probably meant to say Strategic Forces Command, instead of Special Forces Command (not on the horizon yet), and erred in stating DCN being installed on most defence vehicles, and missed out mentioning HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) perhaps knowing it is an organisation with little powers.

As part of the military’s pursuit of capacity building for network-centric warfare (NCW), the DCN was planned as an exclusive strategic communication network permeating down to the level of the Corps Headquarters of the Army and equivalents of the Navy and Air Force plus few static entities, the Strategic Forces Command and HQ IDS. After a decade of playing ping-pong including one proposal to import the system-cum-technology, the contract was finally awarded to HCL Infosystems mercifully in early 2013 for development over two years; Phase 1 consisting of two data centres in hot standby and multiple switching centres with adequate redundancy and over a hundred entities with assured backup through an overlay of satellites.

Post the test bed phase, the project is to be implemented over two years. However, the DCN planned as tri-service strategic communication network for implementation of the command, control, communications, computers, information and intelligence (C4I2) concepts did not include development of common software. So while the DCN has been inaugurated, the vital handshake between the services is missing without which DCN actually boils down to a highway sans traffic. It is the same lopsided approach as in case of the Chutak hydroelectric project; there we had the electricity, but no transmission lines. Here the military has the superhighway for strategic communication, but cannot communicate. Whether or not Parrikar knows this is anybody’s guess but the Ministry of Defence and the military certainly know it.

The emerging geostrategic environment and enlarging threats require synergised national responses; effect-based operations are required that cannot be conducted by the military alone. The need of the hour is a national data super highway interfaced with a national intelligence data base — with need-to-know access rights to various defence, law enforcement and other governmental agencies — which has the capacity to revolutionalise the way in which the national defence and security concerns are being currently addressed. Within this framework, the DCN needs to be linked with such national infrastructure at the appropriate level to ensure information dominance.

Ironically, here we have a situation that we are in no position to even communicate within the DCN.

Presently, networks of the three services do not talk to each other; respective intranets are not interoperable either. Common standards and protocols, mutually compatible database structures, development/deployment of interfaces between systems using disparate platforms and commonality of hardware have not evolved. No single unifying secrecy algorithm for the three services has been developed, though technological solutions exist. If the three services and HQ IDS develop the software individually, there will be attendant problems of interoperability and cost and time overruns, although it is technically feasible.

How do we have such a lopsided approach and low priority accorded to a strategic communication project like the DCN?

One major reason is lack of integration of HQ IDS with the MoD, lack of operational authority with HQ IDS and a glaring void of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) that continues to dog integration and interoperability between services. The second major reason is that on the basis of secrecy, the DRDO wants to grab all such projects even though its Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) does not even develop security solutions but outsources such development, and DRDO has a dismal record of meeting software requirements of the military. Take for example the Army Strategic Operational Information Dissemination System (Astroids) — a GIS based system for the exchange of operational information between the Army HQ and operations rooms of Commands and Corps HQ, and Army HQ with important directorates and entities within Delhi.

Phase 1 costing Rs 10.75 crores was sanctioned in 1995 with the development agency as DRDO’s Institute of System Studies and Analysis (ISSA) but was found grossly wanting on implementation and was subsequently forced to shut down in 2003. Phase 2 was then sanctioned again to ISSA to upgrade the software with PDC as 2006. However, even with the PDC extended to 2012, ISSA was unable to meet the requirement and the project had to be foreclosed.

The joke going around is that zero was invented in India because it was all around us time and again, progress on the tri-service software being a glaring example. So the question now is where do we go from here? Will we continue to dither another few years like the Chutak hydroelectric project, what with our claims as software giants, Indians lording over Silicon Valley, ‘Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram’ being of Indian origin, ‘Make in India’, ‘Digital India’ and all that — not that our indigenous companies don’t have the solution. The answer to develop the common software obviously lies with the private sector, even as superimposing own security overlays is not even a technical problem.

As mentioned, the DRDO is outsourcing anyway.

On balance, the government needs to act and act quick overriding the complacent bureaucracy. The game of appointing committees to look into issues should be dispensed with; various committees set up to identify operational views and points of contacts between the services have remained defunct, with continuing mismatch between networks and applications. It is time Modi realises that the required synergy within the military cannot be achieved in the absence of a CDS.

The author is a retired Lieutenant-General

Published Date: Jul 04, 2016 10:29 am | Updated Date: Jul 04, 2016 10:29 am

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