The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the absolute necessity of coordinating C4ISR in a major conflict. Nations in Asia have already been adding to their capabilities.
Asia Pacific countries have invested significantly over the past decade to expand and reinforce their command, control, computers, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.
The most progress can be observed within East Asia, with the military forces of China, Japan, and South Korea clearly leading their regional counterparts in terms of the scale and scope of their respective national modernisation programmes, as well as the visible outcomes.
With a professional force that comprises approximately two million personnel, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has in the past decade actively sought to modernise and improve its ability to conduct the full range of land, air, and maritime operations as a joint force, in addition to undertaking space, counter-space, electronic warfare (EW), and cyber operations.
Recognising that the elements of jointness, situational awareness, actionable data, and rapid decision-making are vital in modern warfare, China continues to maintain a high priority on modernising the PLA’s ability to plan and execute complex joint operations in near and distant battlefields.
“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is seeking to enhance the PLA’s joint command and control systems; joint logistics systems; and [C4ISR] systems,” the US Department of Defense (DoD) noted in its latest 2021 report on the state of China’s military modernisation efforts.
“In recent years, the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] efforts to strengthen its armed forces have also included undertaking the most comprehensive restructuring of the PLA’s command and control arrangements, forces structure, and administrative organs in its history,” the DoD added, noting that these reforms have sought to reinforce government control of the PLA, improve its ability to conduct joint operations, increase its combat effectiveness, and confront longstanding challenges such as corruption and the entrenched primacy of the PLA ground forces over the other services.
Of note is the PLA’s effort to master “informatisation” or in Western parlance, digitisation. Information dominance has emerged as an essential criterion for the Chinese approach to modern warfare; to secure victory by controlling the flow of information and disrupting the enemy’s access to it. In more recent years, the strategy has expanded to include new concepts such as “intelligentisation”, which aims to exploit emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing for future force development.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has made significant strides in its C4ISR capabilities, successfully developing and fielding new long-range airborne detection and command aircraft such as the Xian KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, which like its Western counterparts, fully integrate active electronically scanned array (AESA) phased radar technology with a comprehensive digital C4 suite. It is believed that the PLAAF currently operates four of these platforms which are based on the Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft. However, it appears that resources are now focussed on developing the next generation of AEW&C platforms derived the Y-9 and Y-20 airframes as opposed to building more of the former.
Externally carried ISR and EW pods and internally integrated sensor capabilities in PLAAF strike and multirole aircraft have become increasingly prevalent in recent years. In September 2021, the PLAAF unveiled an EW variant of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-16 multirole fighter aircraft at the Airshow China 2021 defence exhibition in Zhuhai.
The two-seat aircraft, officially designated the J-16D, was shown in public for the first time at the outdoor static display area in low visibility PLAAF markings. Although no official data of the J-16D has been released, the type is clearly distinctive from the baseline J-16 multirole fighter in several aspects. Notable differences include two prominent EW pods on its wingtips as well as a shorter nose radome that is believed to accommodate an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
The aircraft’s 30mm internal cannon and the Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor system have also been removed, likely to free up space for the additional electronic systems required for its specialised role. Moreover, the aircraft was also seen with four large jamming pods under its wings and air intakes. Each pod is clearly physically distinct and is therefore likely to cover different frequency ranges in the electronic spectrum.
The first J-16D prototype reportedly first flew in late 2015 and seen with the KG600 EW pods developed by China Electronics Technology Group, although the new pods seen on the aircraft in Zhuhai have not been previously documented.
Japan Takes Cyber Seriously
Meanwhile, changes in Japan’s regional security environment are prompting the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) to modernise its C4ISR capabilities across all three services, with particular effort being placed on the cyber and electromagnetic domains.
In March 2022, the MoD launched a new cyber defence command by reorganising related units of the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF, JMSDF, and JASDF). The new 540-strong cyber defence command is tasked with protecting the information and communications network that controls the operations of all JSDF units as well as strengthening its ability to address rapidly growing cyber threats from China, North Korea and Russia.
Japan’s effort to enhance it electromagnetic warfare capabilities is also supported by the recent formation of specialised JGSDF units such as the 301st Electric Warfare Unit at Camp Kengun in 2021, which is equipped with the newly developed truck-mounted Network Electronic Warfare System (NEWS). The 301st will initially provide EW support to the JGSDF’s Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB), which is tasked with recapturing outlying Japanese islands occupied during a conflict.
The JASDF is also developing and fielding several new high-end C4ISR aircraft. It’s Air Development and Test Command (ADTC) is presently working on a dedicated signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform based on the turbofan-powered C-2 tactical airlifter. Understood to be designated the RC-2, the SIGINT variant is clearly distinguished by radomes located around the fuselage and extended tail cone. It also features a belly mounted antenna array with around 18 blade aerials.
A second special mission aircraft based on the C-2 airlifter, this time being optimised for airborne EW operations, is also being developed. Announced in the MoD’s Defense of Japan 2021 white paper, the yet to be named EW aircraft will support counter air operations by disrupting an adversary’s access to the electromagnetic spectrum at stand-off ranges. The MoD has not disclosed further details about the new aircraft, but a concept image indicates that EW and associated C4ISR systems will be prominently integrated to the nose and tail as well as its flanks to achieve all-round spatial coverage.
The JASDF has also fielded its first long-range persistent unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveillance capability, with the first of three Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs acquired via the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme arriving at home base, Misawa Airbase, in northern Japan in March 2022.
“[The UAVs] are introduced for the purpose of gathering information on regions relatively far from Japan and will constantly conduct aerial monitoring when the situation becomes tense,” the JASDF said in a statement. “The aircraft will contribute to the strengthening of the operational ability of the Air Self-Defense Force and strengthen interoperability between Japan and the United States”.
Although South Korea has seen considerable success for its domestic defence industrial base, having supplied major platforms and weapon systems to the Republic of Korea Armed Forces over the years, Seoul has nevertheless highlighted several research and development (R&D) deficiencies. In 2021, its Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) reported that there was a requirement to boost technology in eight core areas, including C4ISR, and reduce its reliance on defence imports (notably from the United States) as well as position its defence industry as an engine of growth for national economic development.
As an example, South Korean industry previously had marginal experience in developing AESA radars, with such requirements historically met by the United States through the FMS mechanism or from other suppliers such as Israel. When development of the Korean Fighter Experimental (KFX) programme for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) commenced, DAPA had initially sought AESA radar and other related technologies from Washington through a defence offset package tied to Seoul’s order of 40 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter aircraft in 2014, but this was ultimately rejected. DAPA eventually selected Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI’s) Elta division to collaborate with the Agency for Defense Development (ADD) and local defence prime Hanwha Systems for initial R&D work.
Some recent progress has been made, with the country’s first indigenously developed AESA fighter aircraft radar which leverages on the experience and knowledge gained from the earlier work, and which was rolled out for flight testing in March. DAPA stated that the flight testing, which is being conducted aboard a Boeing 737 testbed as a surrogate, will help to mitigate integration risk aboard the KF-21 and optimise software development. Testing is expected to continue through April 2023 and comprise 62 evaluation categories over the course of 50 flights which are intended to validate the prototype radar’s detection and performance. The radar will subsequently be integrated onto the KF-21 and will undergo developmental and operational test evaluation until mid-2026.
Airborne ISR and SIGINT operations will also be boosted with the expected delivery of four new reconnaissance aircraft to the RoKAF by the end of 2026. In December 2021, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) was awarded a $675 million contract under the Baekdu-II programme to replace the four Hawker 800SIG Peace Pioneer reconnaissance aircraft that entered RoKAF service from 2001. The new replacements will be based on the Dassault Falcon 2000LXS business jet and mission systems will be developed in cooperation with defence electronics specialist LIG Nex1.
Besides the Baekdu-II programme, the RoKAF is also looking into procuring new Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft with KAI, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon Technologies already expressing interest. It is also seeking to upgrade its four Boeing E-737 AEW&C aircraft. In addition, DAPA is expected to award a contract for additional foreign-made AEW&C aircraft that would enter service by 2030.
Finally, South Korea has made great strides on space-based ISR capabilities. Hanwha Systems and LIG Nex1 announced in September 2021 that they were awarded contracts by DAPA for work related to the ANASIS-II (Army Navy Air Force Satellite Information System-II) military communications satellite.
Hanwha Systems announced it was awarded a $307 million contract to establish a network control system as well as manufacture portable ground terminals compatible with the ANASIS-II satellite, which launched into space in July 2020.
LIG Nex1 disclosed that it had won a $183 million contract to mass produce terminals for the new military satellite communication system by 2025. The company noted that these new terminals will provide increased datalink transmission performance as well as security.
DAPA earlier announced in August 2021 that the government plans to invest $13.5 billion over 10 years to boost the development of indigenous defence-related space technologies and reduce the country’s reliance on American space-based ISR assets.
Over in Southeast Asia, the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) will set up a new branch called the Digital and Intelligence Service (DIS) by the end of 2022 to address a growing concern over threats in the digital domain. The ground-breaking move was announced by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen during a parliamentary debate in March.
The DIS will consolidate the SAF’s existing C4 and cyber capabilities and become the fourth service after the army, air force and navy. The move follows the creation of a C4 command in November 2017, which integrated existing brigade-equivalent units such the C4 Operations Group (C4OG) and Cyber Defence Group (CDG) and will be staffed by around 2,000 regular troops and conscripts by 2027.
“The DIS should not and cannot be just like [Singapore’s] Army, Air Force and Navy with similar troops operating in the digital domain instead of the physical domain,” explained Ng.
“The addition of this fourth service, the DIS, will allow the SAF to better train and fight as a networked, integrated, and expanded force to deal with the spectrum of threats that we know exist today, but also the digital domain that we know will increase in the future,” he added, noting that Singapore had already invested heavily to boost the SAF’s C4ISR capabilities over the past decade.
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) has introduced several new sensor systems such as the IAI Elta E/LM 2083 Aerostat Early Warning Radar aboard its two 55m TCOM aerostats, E/LM-2084 multi-mission radar (MMR), and the Thales Ground Master 200 3D radar which serve the RSAF’s air-defence network. These radar systems are managed by an indigenous combat management system (CMS) which fuses information from multiple sensors to present a highly detailed air-situation picture.
The Singapore Army announced in July 2021 that it had achieved a key milestone in its ‘3rd Generation’ (3G) modernisation programme, which seeks to develop an advanced and highly integrated fighting force capable of responding to a wide spectrum of threats with its 3G Combined Arms Division (CAD).
According to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), the 3G CAD is able to field mechanised and motorised Combined Arms Brigades (CABs) as well as a Division Strike Brigade that can seamlessly command strike assets such as the army’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and the RSAF’s Boeing F-15SG and Lockheed Martin F-16 combat aircraft and Boing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters.
These brigades are equipped with the indigenous 3G Command and Control Information System (CCIS) and Battlefield Management System (BMS) developed by local defence scientists and engineer, which are designed to connect and synergise deployed tactical forces with brigade and divisional headquarters of the 3G CAD.
The pace of C4ISR modernisation has been somewhat uneven elsewhere in the region, with several military forces clearly in need of upgrades but without access to the necessary fiscal support to mount a sustained effort. Nevertheless, industry appears to be cognisant of emerging opportunities in this respect and are positioning themselves for any opportunities that might arise.
State-owned Indonesian defence electronics firm PT Len Industri announced in April 2022 that it is partnering with Thales to jointly explore C4ISR and cyber (C5ISR) solutions as well as UAVs, including plans to develop a national CMS based on the latter’s Tacticos CMS suite based on existing systems used aboard some of the Indonesian Navy’s surface combatants. The companies will also work on civilian and military radar systems, including the co-development of a national C2 radar and local maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) activities.
A newly set up subsidiary of Vietnam’s state-owned Viettel Military Industry and Telecoms Group, Viettel High Technology Industries Corporation (VHT), is also aiming to develop and offer a range of C5ISR capabilities to the Vietnamese armed forces, with the longer-term intention to enter the export market.
by Jr Ng