Even if 5G is ubiquitously available all over India in the near future, its induction for the active exploitation by the armed forces would take anything from 5 to 8 years. As we usher in the much heralded and awaited jointness in our armed forces and prepare for persistent competition, we would need to usher and exploit 5G at the earliest
by Lt. General Rajeev Sabherwal
When we look back, we find that wars have been fought ever since the idea of tribes was born. It has graduated from tribal wars to states fighting and nations going to war.
Arrows, lances, swords, machetes gave way to rifles and later to guns, tanks, artillery, rockets, and nuclear bombs as the weapons of war.
Two devastating world wars have been fought causing immense miseries to the human race. In future wars, even space will emerge as a region of conflict.
The nature of conflict and the shape of the global geopolitical landscape is being permanently changed with the advent and experimental advances in digital technology.
Some technologies have been truly disruptive, changing the very course of war. In today’s information age, countless military innovations are being developed that seek to take advantage of the digital revolution.
However, the single innovation that will truly reshape the modern battlefield in our lifetime is one that nearly every citizen exploits for every conceivable requirement-the portable smartphone.
What Have We Endeavoured To Usher In Cellular Technology?
Whilst the militaries across the world have exploited cellular technologies in some recognisable measure, the Indian armed forces have generally been found wanting to derive true operational dividends of this disruptive way of communicating.
Indian Army took the head start and established a 2G CDMA based Mobile Cellular Communication Network (MCCS), South of the Pir Panjal, in 2007 which was subsequently followed by another advanced 3G CDMA network in the Kashmir Valley in 2016.
Both these networks have repeatedly proved to be revolutionary in every way in meeting the operational, intelligence, logistics and administrative requirements of the troops deployed in these areas.
Buoyed by the astounding success of these projects, Corps of Signals took a giant leap of conceiving a cellular network all along the northern borders but regrettably the project was foreclosed at the penultimate stage.
In hindsight, continuing the project to its logical conclusion would have proved to be a big gamechanger in the recent Doklam and Galwan incidents.
The operational need for cellular technology which not only makes the entities smart but also asynchronous in space continues to be felt not only for our counter-terrorism operations but also all along the northern borders for every conceivable operational, logistics and administrative requirement.
Indian Air Force too, likewise, went in for their cellular network AFCEL in 2013 based on 3G WCDMA to provide mobile and secure ‘end-point’ connectivity to the air warriors deployed across the length and breadth of our country.
The Indian Army currently has an ambitious project to convert the erstwhile 2G CDMA network to an LTE network. The project is at an advanced stage but in our perpetual propensity for overreaching to a future technology we should not end up repeating our past mistakes since our labyrinthine procurement cycle ensures that we are always one generation behind.
Why Should The Military Be Excited About 5G?
Cellular communications until now have primarily focused on human communications, connecting people to people. But the next generation mobile network i.e., 5G would enable a new kind of network that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything together including machines, objects, and devices.
This will facilitate the real-time exchange of information in an ever-dynamic operational environment that our armed forces operate in.
The vision of smart entities in the Tactical Battle Area including smart frontiers which requires realisation of Internet of Things (IoT), can be truly realised with 5G networks providing the potential essential infrastructure.
How Will 5G Facilitate The Contemporary Nature of Warfare?
Today, Militaries worldwide are pivoting their armed forces from the traditional concept of ‘Total War’ to a new information age era of ‘Persistent Competition’.
This calls for distributed AI-augmented decision-making capability with our decision-makers at the cutting edge. 5G will support crunching the data generated by millions of battlefields IoT sensors instantaneously at the edge, then deliver the required information to the best ‘shooter’ and the appropriate decision-maker.
We will also see the processing of data at the edges of the battlespace, and transmission of vast amounts of information (not data) which would complement the decision-making using AI.
Needless to add that all connectivity’s between the entities and the military cloud would deliver information at hyper-speed.
As we usher in the much heralded and awaited jointness in our armed forces and prepare for persistent competition, we would need to usher and exploit 5G at the earliest.
What Needs To Be Done?
Trials for the 5G networks are currently ongoing by the Telecom Service Providers (TSPs). The three services under the signal officer-in-chief need to be actively incorporated in the ongoing trials so that military-specific use cases along with applications can be developed and tested.
However, even if 5G is ubiquitously available all over India in the near future, its induction for the active exploitation by the armed forces would take anything from 5 to 8 years in keeping with the past experiences of procurement delays, decision dilemmas and financial crunch.
This is too wide a gap towards meeting our operational requirements, especially along Northern borders.
This vital gap in the interim needs to be filled in by rolling out LTE based networks in our forward areas so that the operational dividends of cellular technology are available to the troops deployed at the earliest.
LTE technology is well established at the most competitive prices and made in India solutions are freely available in the market. The Mobile Integrated Network Terminal (MINT) project of the Indian Army which is based on the Network in a Box (NIB) solution of LTE needs an organisational impetus to roll out before the technology becomes obsolete.
By any reckoning, we should be able to fully exploit the LTE based networks to the hilt before 5G is in a state to be inducted and operationally made available to the three Forces.
To summarise briefly, future wars would be ‘multi-domain operations’ by joint forces fighting as part of our theatre commands. ‘connectivity’ therefore, would be crucial for situational awareness and COP across all the domains.
A phased approach to rollout our cellular networks would be financially prudent and operationally pragmatic. To begin with, early adoption of 4G LTE solutions should be implemented in the short term (1-2 years); for mid-term (3-5 years) – a hybrid model using LTE and 5G may be considered, and for long term (5-10 years) – adoption of exclusive 5G/6G and beyond needs to be strategized.
Incorporating the armed forces in the ongoing trials with the TSPs would help in developing dual-use technologies, solutions, and applications. These trials could be based on 5G/5Gi but in consonance with the accepted standards in India.