Digital Transformation of Defence

In modern militaries, the rise of digital platforms is empowering the military, enabling better continuity of operations and bringing armed forces to a new level of combat readiness. An eminent panel comprising of NIK Khanna, President BAE Systems and R Madhavan, Chairman & Managing Director HAL delved into the intricacies of “The Digital Transformation of Defence” during the Synergia Conclave 2019.


The Gulf War was an insight into a fully connected digitised battlefield.  Since then, technology has gone far ahead. Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Computing, Big Data, Data Analytics, Augmented Reality introduced at the tactical and operational level are game-changers.

But digitalisation is bringing some inherent challenges as well. Creating a ubiquitous operating environment for armed forces certainly provides greater operational benefits; however, handling and managing data remain a key concern, from data security to data spillover and theft.


Nik Khanna spoke at length on the digital battlefield, an area of expertise of his company.  With the onset of the digital age, when computers were added to the military function of Command and Control (C2) along satellite-based early warning systems to pick up soviet missile launches, the function became C4ISR-Command Control Communications Computers Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance.  Operation Iraqi Freedom showcased the digitisation of the battlespace with GPS, Satcom, real-time imagery by aircraft to ground troops based upon which smart weapons could be brought to bear. A fast-moving modern battlefield is full of dynamic situations which can be met only by real-time intelligence.

Digitisation has allowed C4ISR to attain great heights.  Data from a variety of sources are being analysed in real-time in any mission environment to enable its exploitation and dissemination to the right person at the right time for the right mission-critical need. It is being handled by troops deployed in multiple fields from workstations to ships and aircraft. Digital intel is the backbone of US air force and a critical system requirement for fielding its long-range Global Hawk armed UCAVs. In network-centric warfare, interoperability is the keyword and India has to get on the game at the fastest if it has to operate with world armies.

Indian platforms should be capable of operating in a digital environment with data links which facilitates interoperability to fix, engage and destroy targets. Whether engaging a well-armed adversary with advanced weapon systems or responding to an asymmetrical attack, friendly forces must be able to exchange great quantities of accurate, reliable data in real-time.  

Modern weapons systems are evolving with a confluence of many other technologies like combat Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), mission computing systems and mission-specific consoles. With the huge availability of data, the data analysis capability too is being enhanced dramatically. 

Giving an insight into the future, Khanna said that the world would continue to grapple with war and conflicts.  Tactical hotspots around the world will keep erupting where these systems would get deployed with rugged mobile relays, quantum computing and rely upon disinformation to disorient the enemy. Hardened systems, micro drones, advanced ECM will be part of the package in an even more advanced form.

R. Madhavan spoke of the future in a time span of 30 to 40 years from now.  As per CEOs of US defence manufacturers, looking at the speed of transformation in technology, no one can predict what will be the future for more than 15 years.  AI will set limits and directions which today we cannot even imagine.

Looking at a time period of 10 to 12 years, we can see platforms still manned by pilots and not totally machine-driven aircraft. But the pilot will be more or less a battle manager with a large number of manned / unmanned assets under him.  His primary focus will be managing his cockpit resources which will be substantial.

The philosophy will be not to risk the platform and the pilot across the border.  The cockpit will have increasingly greater management by AI and fewer but precise sensors will make targeting safer and accurate.  AI will be integrated with platforms to utilise the large amount of data being fed in real-time through data links.  Digital systems, being prone to cyber-attacks, would require high-quality security and hardening of all systems right from the basic chips to electronic hardware, firmware, operating systems and software.  Critical systems would be preferably in-country sourced

Due to the fast rate of obsolescence of platforms in this digital century, technology is looked upon as ‘near horizon and far horizon’. Near horizon is where the turnover is faster that is after 10-15 years and redesign thereafter. 5th and even 6th generation aircraft will be more adaptable to absorb midlife upgrades to extend their lives and come at par with later models.  A good example is the US F-35 programme with advance stealth features and ECM etc.  Customers are assured of an upgraded architecture enable its sustained upgrade with design development engineering.

It must be borne in mind that no MNC will part with cutting edge technology.  Indigenous skill development is crucial for maintaining the edge in a digital battlefield. The country must create own technology from open sources and where possible create own IPRs.  Create R&D and if need be a partner with outside companies on a risk-sharing basis. Trade access in a multipolar world would need better networking between industries to encourage collaboration over competition.


  • Wars are only getting more complex as a host of players converge into the warzone. Cyber, space and cognitive domains are being added to the existing realms of land, sea, and air. The counter lies in tech tools which are smarter and can operate over the entire spectrum.
  • Internet-enabled terrorism and resorting to remote plotting represents a completely new genre of terrorism for which militaries are ill-prepared. This is poised to grow further in the 21st century; involving cyber planners, who will be responsible for orchestrating terror attacks; identifying recruits and assessing possible opportunities. 
  • Cyber protection of systems will be crucial as the dependence on computers will be total, and a cyber-attack will be far more lethal to the platforms than actual ground fire/ SAMs.
  • India trails behind in the design and manufacture of high-tech systems and will continue to be dependent on exports. However, it will have to leverage its purchasing power to extract the maximum transfer of technology to rejuvenate the domestic industry.  Of course, indigenous R&D with local IPR is the best way forward but will require huge investments and skill management.