Digitalization in Warfighting Opens New Frontiers

Digitization of warfighting systems has emerged as a potent force multiplier, increasing the lethality of combat weapons and management systems through increased accuracy and versatility. Inevitably, the growing reliance on digitization has opened new frontiers in warfighting such as cyber warfare.


Digitization is a pervasive global trend. Human knowledge, past and present, is being relentlessly digitized (converted into binary code), stored on computer media, and then processed and mined for actionable information by computers using software (computer code) algorithms that mimic human way of thinking and, to some extent, human intelligence.

The greatest impetus to digitization comes from the flexibility of software based processing of data, as opposed to hardware based processing used on analogue systems of the past. Using layers of software, it becomes possible to code complex processing logic and later enhance the logic to leverage technological strides.

Development of digital processing can be traced back to the middle of the last century. Its use was initially confined to science laboratories grappling with new technologies such as aviation, space and nuclear research. The initial focus was on fast number crunching but as digital technology matured it became evident that its innate flexibility could be leveraged in many other critical areas, such as control systems. Control systems are ubiquitous in technological systems ranging from nuclear power stations, manufacturing plants, power distribution grids, etc. Manually operated control systems are slow and error prone. The flexibility with which a computer reads and processes data makes digital automation a better choice than analogue systems based automation.

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) developed in the mid sixties, which helped the Apollo command modules accurately fly to the Moon and the Apollo Lunar Modules to safely descend onto the heavily cratered lunar surface was a landmark event in flight control systems. Significantly, the AGC featured less computing horsepower than the smartphones that we use today!


Digital Processing in Defense

The advantages of digital processing inevitably started to be leveraged for more lethal warfighting. The use of digital processing in the militaries started with simple number crunching of logistics and maintenance data in the 1970s. Its use proliferated to sensor networking, simulation and combat control systems. With miniaturization, digital processing started to be deployed in weapon platforms (aircraft, ships, tanks) and subsystems, such as digital flight control, weapon guidance and management, sensor management and fusion, network centric warfare, and electronic warfare.

Speed, accuracy, and flexibility of digital processing have made present day weapon platforms more lethal and digital networking of varied systems has boosted the warfighting capability of technologically advanced nations (force multiplication).


Escalatory Trend in Digital Processing Requirement

Increasing reliance on digital processing has had an escalatory effect on the requirement for digital processing in warfighting because software needs to be protected from hacking and malicious code insertions, which requires writing more software!

A few lines of malicious code surreptitiously injected into a digital subsystem by a rogue element or through oversight can completely void the capability of a platform or a network! Sensors can be spoofed or seduced. For example, DRFM (Digital Radio Frequency Memory) jamming can generate spurious radar echoes that are electronically indistinguishable from actual echoes, neutering the guidance capability of a radar. DRFM jamming can only be countered algorithmically.

Also, modern platforms and subsystems need to deploy computing horsepower and develop complex algorithms to preclude malicious code injection, data link interception and decryption.

Computer algorithms that drive digital systems have to be coded and tested painstakingly. This has resulted in cost escalation as well as dramatically increased the percentage share of software development and maintenance cost for weapon platforms and systems.



Digitization Increases Capability, Costs

The increased capability of modern weapon systems can, to a great extent, be attributed to the use of digital systems and software in sensor and weapon subsystems. Software processing of sensor readouts facilitates precision tracking of targets and threats; and fusion of data from multiple sensors facilitates situational awareness. Computer guidance increases the lethality of shells, bombs and missiles. Computerized control systems optimize the utilization of power produced by engines and generators. They ensure safe flight or traction. Computer processors ensure safe encryption of communication, operation of ELINT and EW systems, operation of life support systems, and much more.

Modern weapon systems need to be supported not just by state of the art electronic hardware but also thousands, and sometimes millions, of lines of well tested and flawless code. Digitization increases development costs to an extent that is not widely appreciated. Software development costs of a modern fighter aircraft, for example, are now estimated to be 60–70% of the system cost.


Increased Cost of Production, Reduced Shelf Life, Limited Inventory

Besides digitization, increase in lethality of modern weapon systems can also be attributed to the use of improved materials (alloys, composites) and improved electronic hardware (increase in computing power of processors as per Moore's law, miniaturization). Alloys, composites, electronics and software are packaged into discrete and replaceable platform subsystems which cost a lot to develop, but represent rapidly advancing technology with a short shelf life. Consequently, development costs of modern subsystems are rarely mitigated by extended production runs.

The high initial cost of modern defense platforms and the early obsolescence of their subsystems compels the military to cut inventory size. Though, the reduced inventory is more than compensated for by increased lethality, there is a catch! Inventory reduction mandates very high serviceability levels!

To illustrate, let's assume that the accuracy, situational awareness and swing role capability of a new generation fighter makes it as capable as five older generation fighters, and a small country replaces its entire fighter fleet comprising five older generation fighters with a single new generation fighter. While the overall combat capability of the hypothetical country would not reduce, the combat capability would certainly come to a naught if the single new generation replacement fighter was grounded due to lack of spares! Which would not have been the case when flying five older generation fighters.

With earlier generation systems, high serviceability was relatively easy to achieve – all you had to do was to stock a large inventory of spares! That is not possible today because of the very high cost of subsystems. Stocking costly subsystems prone to early obsolescence pushes up ownership and operation life cycle costs. The optimum way to beat the cost spiral is to reduce inventory to near zero using an extremely short and efficient logistics pipeline! Don't stock subsystems, just ensure that they are available as soon as they are required. Such agile provisioning is not possible without digitization.


Mitigating Life Cycle Costs through Digitization

Past provisioning systems were based on depot stock levels; the imperative now is to develop provisioning systems based on residual subsystem life. Such systems require real time tracking of subsystems’ usage such as a fuel pump on a fighter using networked onboard sensors! Not just usage hours, even the health of a subsystem needs to be monitored so that premature failure could be predicted and a replacement provisioned for pre-emptive replacement.

Visualize the effort and cost to develop software and supporting network and infrastructure for such agile provisioning systems. It takes money, even to cut costs!




Digitization Challenges Confronting Indian Defense

Despite India's desire to Make-in-India, the country would need to continue relying on import of defense platforms (aircraft, drones) and defense subsystems (engines, PGMs, sensors) in the foreseeable future. As of now, India just doesn't have the resources to develop the entire gamut of weapon platforms and subsystems that it needs within the country.

Weapon system digitization adds a lot of complexity to defense acquisitions. In the past, you could import a missile or a bomb, sling it on the pylon of an aircraft and use it to destroy a target. (Well, it has never been that simple, but it was simple enough.) Thanks to digitization, before a weapon can be used on a platform it has to be integrated with the computerized navigation and weapon management subsystems of the platform, a process that is time consuming and expensive. Also, a process that requires full cooperation of the platform vendor. Sometimes, the cooperation is not forthcoming for political reasons, and sometimes it can only be obtained at exorbitant cost.

India's problem is exacerbated by its acquisition of platforms and weapons from western countries as well as Russia. The adversarial relationship between Russia and the West often rules out platform-weapon system integrations desired by India, preventing India from optimally utilizing its defense acquisitions.

Based on past difficulties, when purchasing new platforms India is now insisting that foreign vendors transfer the complete software code for the platform. Not all vendors are ready to do so, and those that are demand a lot of money. Without source code, India cannot integrate weapon systems that it develops within the country or acquires from other sources.


The Future

Digitization and data processing requirements permeate modern weapon system development. The imperative for digitization is set to increase over the years with the advent of concepts like loyal wingman, airborne weapon trucks, terrestrial robotic mules and autonomous weapon systems of many hues.

Leading powers of the world are starting to transition from remotely controlled platforms to first generation autonomous platforms. Human strides in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will see rapid generational changes in autonomous platforms.

With warfare increasingly dependent on digitization, cyber warfare has become a reality. The reality is stark enough for us to visualize a future where kinetic warfare, which is now so heavily dependent on digitization, will give way completely to digital warfare! Whether that would be good or bad is difficult to foresee…


Author - Vijainder Thakur

©New defence order. Strategy  №5 (64) 2020

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