Defence Industry

C4ISR and Autonomous Capabilities
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Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 04 Jan , 2022


A military leader, as a pre-condition, must be able to exercise Command and Control (C2) over the forces subordinated to him if he is to accomplish his mission. The United States (US) Department of Defence defines C2 as the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of the mission. Communications and computers have been added on to C2 as adjuncts necessary to the exercise of that authority and direction. Each of these C’s links to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) which, according to one definition, collectively signify the coordinated acquisition, processing and provision of accurate, relevant and timely information and intelligence to support a commander’s decision making process. The term C4ISR has thus come to be associated with an advantage in decision making inasmuch as it provides enhanced situational awareness, panoptic knowledge of the environment, extensive information on the enemy’s activity with shortened (and further shortening) time gap between sensing all these and conveyance to the commander for his decision process. The ultimate purpose is to cut down the response time for the commander. Tentative iterations are adding cyber warfare and combat resources to C4ISR to render it C5ISR and C6ISR respectively.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is penetrating military affairs with remarkable velocity and is transforming C4ISR. The availability of rapidly evolving AI technology on the one hand and the operational need to slash down decision making times on the other, are impelling the development of AI-optimised, complex elements of C4ISR and associated networks. This article takes a look at autonomous capabilities in the domain of C4ISR.

Emerging Warfare Trends and C4ISR      

Land-based conflict represented man’s territorial aspirations until the capability to navigate oceans expanded his ambition to territories beyond reach by land. The invention of heavier-than-air aerial platforms added the medium of air as the third domain of warfare. Remarkable scientific developments in the fields of computers and communication led to Information Technology (IT) and information warfare thus became the next arena for military rivalry. As military powers increasingly relied on for success in operations in the other three domains (land, sea and air), the term cyber warfare was added as the fourth domain of war.

RAND Corporation describes cyber warfare as the actions by a nation state or an international organisation to attack and attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through, et al, computer viruses or denial-of-service attacks. Cyber warfare’s first appearance as a tangible domain was in 2007 when the Estonian government which wanted to move a Soviet war memorial, was assaulted by cyber attacks which were widely believed to be from Russian hackers although Russia officially denied any such involvement in the attacks. The cyber attacks targeted banks and government services and rendered them ineffective. There was, however, no physical damage to any building or computer.

Later, in 2010, the Stuxnet affair inflicted extensive damage to Iran’s nuclear programme and raised cyber warfare to another level of vigour. Since then, there have been many instances of physical damage or disruption due to cyber attacks as in the case of power supply in parts of Ukraine being interrupted in 2015 by hackers using a Trojan called Black Energy. It is also possible to conjure up scenarios wherein hackers march alongside infantry and armour and use computers to attack the enemy’s war waging capabilities. Digital attacks like computer viruses and hacking by one military to disrupt the vital computer systems of another, with the aim of creating damage, death and destruction, are now a reality as many nations build cyber defensive and offensive capabilities at a fast pace. In 2016, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) formally defined cyberspace as an “operational domain” of warfare.

In simultaneity with developments in IT and cyberspace, the distension of air into aerospace progressed steadily with militarisation and weaponisation of space. In 2018, President Donald Trump had announced that the new US national strategy for space recognised that space is a war fighting domain that needs to be guarded by a separate Space Force. In 2019, as per the London Declaration issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in London, NATO formally recognised space as an operational domain alongside land, sea, air and cyberspace. This recognition follows from the increasing use of space satellites employed for C4ISR objectives. In parallel with aerial platforms in the battle area provided the field commander with the advantage of high ground, the deployment of orbital satellites elevates that ‘high ground’ advantage considerably. Notwithstanding the increasing weaponisation of orbital platforms, emergence of new more offensive roles and ‘militarisation’ of space, it has provided supplemental capabilities to C4ISR by providing satellite-based vantage stations covering huge swaths of terrestrial territories and empowering C4ISR through increased surveillance field of view and relay communications between elements not in range of organic communication equipment.

While the domains of warfare are clearly defined, conventional warfare has been pushed into the background by more recent additions to military vocabulary; some of the prominent ones are Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW), Low Intensity Conflict Operations (LICO), Irregular Warfare (IW), Hybrid Warfare (HW), Asymmetric Warfare (AW), Small Wars, Grey Wars and Little Green Men. The last named refers to Russian soldiers in masks and unmarked green army uniform, carrying Russian military weapons and equipment who materialised during the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, and brought about the annexation of Crimea, Political Warfare, Mosaic Warfare and Prototype Warfare. Since the instruments of C4ISR operate beyond the boundaries of land, sea and aerospace, their proliferation progresses vigorously. The huge amount of data churned out by C4ISR mediums, needs to be processed speedily to be meaningful to the decision-making process. The human brain’s capacity to handle data, analyse it and reach a decision, has proved inadequate to the objectives of C4ISR. Moreover, there is a need to speed up the tactical timeline by giving commanders the data collected from multiple domains and different platforms and presented through a common operating picture.

Data Deluge

The munificence of the veritable ‘cloud’ has led to a surfeit of data the thirsty need for more and more of which is insatiable, but the analysis of which is a challenge due to its scale and its velocity. Highly automated methods are what are required for near instantaneous analysis and decision-making. According to a study by Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corporation, a US-based management and IT consulting firm, military organisations are dealing with an array of technologies that were not built to work together and thus require operators to shift between interfaces to accomplish a range of essential tasks. This entails critical time delays which can be reduced significantly using a process called Enterprise Integration wherein individual pieces that make up C4ISR are designed modularly ab initio, as part of an enterprise system. The benefit of interoperable, modular technology means that higher levels of autonomy can be woven into intermeshing modules. This autonomy promises to solve many problems related to big data.

Perhaps it would be useful to differentiate between the terms ‘automated’ and ‘autonomous’. In general, automated systems work within a well-defined set of parameters and are very restricted in what tasks they can perform, the decisions they make or actions they take are based on predefined heuristics. In contrast, an autonomous system learns and adapts to dynamic environments and evolves as the environment around it changes. The data it learns and adapts to, could well lie outside what was contemplated when the system was deployed. Such systems will ingest and learn from increasing data sets faster and eventually more reliably than what would be reasonable for a human. In other words, an automated system is programmed to perform a set of specific tasks with well understood, known parameters and to perform them repeatedly and efficiently. On the other hand, an autonomous system is one that defines the right decision or action under an evolving, non-deterministic environment.

The C4ISR process needs to work autonomously through the whole gamut of intuitively discovering needed information from the data cascade, accessing that information, analysing it to produce decision making products and share the product with those who need it or take action autonomously based on the brief. Autonomy should also extend to render data reusable and discoverable across disparate security domains. This is where AI and Machine Learning (ML) are the differentiating factors and the focus areas.

AI Empowering C4ISR

The computational prowess and complexity of the hand maidens of C4ISR ordains that AI and its sub-set ML be employed to enable autonomous C4ISR functions by making decisions like a human being but at exponentially faster speeds. In June last year (2020), Lockheed Martin Skunk Works successfully demonstrated an autonomous ISR system to enhance operational effectiveness for a combat aircraft in denied communications environments. Integrated into an F-16 through a Lockheed Martin-developed pod solution, the AI-powered avionics system was able to detect and identify the location of the target, automatically route to the target and capture an image to confirm the target in a simulated, denied communications environment, thus keeping the aircraft safe while achieving its mission. Another C4ISR area fructified by AI is target recognition. Rafael Advanced Defence Systems Ltd has demonstrated a new Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) capability for its SPICE-250 air-to-ground, stand-off, autonomous weapon system which can operate in GPS-denied environment using Inertial Navigation System for initial navigation and ATR mode in the target area for detection and recognition of its individually assigned target autonomously. AI and Deep Learning technologies provided the breakthrough enabling the SPICE-250 to effectively learn the characteristics of specific targets in advance of the strike. These are stray illustrations of which there are hundreds in use or under development.

Indeed, the US Department of Defense created the Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre (JAIC) in 2018, and rolled out a new department-wide AI strategy to be implemented by JAIC; its first focus area is delivering AI-enabled capabilities that address key missions by rolling out next-gen C4ISR systems. The aim is to use AI to increase operational effectiveness and accelerate integration with autonomous systems. AI is also being pressed into service for network protection.

Future of Autonomous C4ISR

The need for autonomous C4ISR operations is inescapable for missions in hostile environments, potentially hazardous areas and inaccessible operational terrain or space. Operational autonomy includes automatic characterisation of operational areas from different vantages (i.e., space-borne, air-borne, surface, sub-surface), automatic sensor deployment and data gathering, automatic feature extraction including anomaly detection and region-of-interest identification, automatic target prediction and prioritisation and subsequent automatic deployment, re-deployment and navigation of robotic platforms. Some of the technology areas in which hectic research for autonomous C4ISR is on are multi-tiered robotic platform development (air, ground, water-based), robotic behaviour motifs as the building blocks for autonomous tele-commanding and autonomous decision-making based on sensor data fusion, anomaly detection and target prioritisation.

The concept of information warfare is premised on connecting sensors and weapon systems throughout the battle space to achieve high mission success rates. However, C4ISR systems of different services – even of the same nation – evolve disparately and tend to work in silos.. One solution to this integration problem is Enterprise Integration (mentioned earlier) which involves creating an open digital ecosystem that connects C4ISR systems through common standard interfaces. The concept does not lay so much emphasis on commonality of systems as on common and secure standards and interface specifications.

There are impressive developments in C4ISR platforms in all domains of warfare, but perhaps the most striking are in the area of drones – the all-encompassing term used to describe unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones have been around for a long time and autonomous High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) systems have been providing autonomous means of ISR data collection and transmission for over two decades. Drone operations have achieved sophisticated levels of 3D aerial autonomy to date and can perform complex C4ISR tasks including in collaboration modes with other drones and land- or sea-based robots. The utility of drones in autonomous C4ISR operations has risen dramatically in recent years, because, unlike manned aircraft, they can fly or function in the air for extended periods. They are also less expensive than military planes, ships or ground vehicles and there is no risk of operating crew losing their lives.

Swarms of drones operating autonomously hold special promise for C4ISR. US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) programme involves quad-copter drones flying as a swarm to present an expansive aerial view to humans fighting on the ground. The swarm maps the neighbourhood below in an intricate pattern to create a real-time mosaic of surveillance over a selected objective area. Project MAVEN is a Pentagon project intended to use AI and ML in order to differentiate people and objects in footage of thousands of hours collected and transmitted by a large number of drones. The resulting appreciation of ground situations in real-time is game-changing and that too, without the expensive and risky use of manned aircraft.

C4ISR autonomy is not restricted to aerial platforms. Sea Hunter, an autonomous unmanned surface ship designed and built by Leidos, a US-based research company, has demonstrated an unmanned voyage from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbour, Hawai and back ( a 5,750-mile trip) entirely autonomously. In September 2020, DARPA threw open the Context Reasoning for Autonomous Teaming (CREATE) project for exploring new approaches to autonomous teaming of physically distributed groups of military autonomous machines in the air, on land or at sea, in situations where centralised coordination is not possible or difficult. The project aims at producing autonomous formations of scalable machine-to-machine teams and developing the theoretical foundations of autonomous AI teaming to pursue several simultaneous and unplanned C4ISR mission goals especially in degraded communications conditions. Each autonomous machine in the team will be able to understand how its own sensing and actuation modes relate to common mission goals thus helping machine team members balance their resources autonomously. This is a little different from some of the remotely directed and controlled systems in use currently, which use far reaching communications networks to give humans fine-tuned control over those systems. Naturally, in case of a communications breakdown, machines are programmed to move autonomously towards mission accomplishment, albeit at reduced efficiency. CREATE’s objectives are a bit different from those of swarming drones inasmuch as DARPA wants to find a framework that can communicate with a heterogeneous group of machines and, with the right measure of AI, get the machine – machine combinations to distinguish their role and capability in the context of a mission and act independently. In addition, they can meet multiple spontaneous goals that arise over the course of a mission. The end goal is a system that can learn and, especially, a system that can learn from mistakes and can improvise as circumstances require. The autonomy at the heart of CREATE renders it revolutionary in concept. The above cited are random illustrations of recent advances in drone autonomy which promise to become more and more useful for C4ISR tasks as we move ahead in time.

An emerging area that holds out the promise of enhancing autonomy for C4ISR considerably is edge computing which is already being talked about as the next major revolution in information technology. This is especially (but not exclusively) applicable to high speed, highly manoeuvrable swarm UAVs collaborating with each other tactically in close proximity to each other and to hostile aerial platforms. Cloud computing is too slow for their cooperative communication as the time taken for devices/UAVs to communicate through cloud computing which connects through centralised data centres or servers; it is unacceptably long; edge computing processes data on the spot at the “edge” of the network, i.e. at or near the source of the significant data, thus cutting down the processing time.

Concluding Remarks

The five domains of warfare are fairly distinct and differentiated; but the terms all-domain and multi-domain are gaining currency in the context of warfare. Military leaders and thinkers would like to have future C4ISR not only multi-domain in nature but also be seamlessly incorporated across the domains. Space-based assets play increasingly vital roles in C4ISR processes and are being made more and more autonomous and untethered from ground commands.

As far as Indian is concerned, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy already have dedicated large communication satellites for their C4ISR needs while the Indian Army is yet to get one of its own. However, Indian Earth Observation (EO) and Remote Sensing (RS) have been providing inputs to all the three services. For the latter category of spacecraft and communications, satellites based in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) could be useful, but the Indian military has none of its own currently. Satellites in Geostationary Orbit (GSO) hold out the advantage that only three satellites are required to provide communications coverage for the entire globe. Their designs are simple since they do not require antennas to track their movement from the ground, allowing a single broadband high throughput satellite in GSO to cover a third of the planet. Nevertheless, they are insufficient to meet all the communications and bandwidth needs of the Indian armed forces, which small satellites are expected to at least partially fill in the near future, thus meeting the C4ISR requirements of air, ground and naval operations.

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India is also working on the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition & Reconnaissance (ISTAR) programme with the US under the US-India Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. An ISTAR aircraft uses AI, integrated onboard sensors and advanced autonomous processing rapidly and at long range to provide critical information on enemy movements, dispositions and communications in real-time, equipping commanders with a clear, multi-faceted picture of the changes in the battlefield to take the right decisions. The platform can help track mobile ground targets, map natural disaster areas, monitor vessels to enforce maritime embargoes and keep an eye on activities near borders and littoral areas. It can also provide battlefield management and command-and-control processing capability, helping in planning and executing missions. India’s ISTAR is expected to use multiple intelligence or multi-INT, technology, obtaining data from multiple sensors across the spectrum will be combined to draw a complete picture of the situation on the battlefield. Such a system also gives significantly more coverage than a radar-only system.

Autonomy is transforming the way core C4ISR operations are executed and the resulting decisions and actions employed by commanders. Astonishing levels of autonomy are being enabled by technological advances and their impact on tactical empowerment is poised to influence operational, strategic and doctrinal aspects of warfare.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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