Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Air Space Management: Need For Review

By General MM Naravane (r) 

In the simplest of terms, Air Space Management (ASM) refers to the “coordination, integration, and regulation of the use of airspace of defined dimensions” (emphasis added). It is essentially a planning function (as opposed to an executive function), with the primary objective of optimising the utilisation of available airspace by dynamic time-sharing and, at times, the segregation of airspace among various categories of airspace users on a need basis, depending on the tactical situation. 

It prevents mutual interference from all airspace users, facilitates air defence identification, and safely accommodates all air traffic flow. Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF) is critical to avoid ‘blue’ on ‘blue’ incidents. The issue of ASM is even more important now with the range of users and variety of aerial platforms that have permeated the battle space.

There has been an exponential proliferation of unmanned systems in recent years. These range from the ubiquitous quadcopter that can be operated by virtually anyone, having a ceiling of a few hundred feet and limited endurance; to remotely piloted platforms that can be hand launched and recovered anywhere; to the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) and High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) class of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that require a proper airstrip for launch and recovery as well as specialised training. MALE UAVs fly at altitudes of 10,000 to 30,000 feet, while HALE drones can operate even higher and are often capable of faster speeds. 

HALE UAVs may even operate in the stratosphere and are known as High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellites (HAPS). Both types are used by militaries for applications such as persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), as well as providing strike capabilities. Also entering the fray are unmanned helicopters and tethered drones. And, of course, let us remember the primary users of this air space, the aircraft of all types, from fighters to transports to high-value assets such as aerial refuellers and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

With the proliferation of systems and their relative ease of operation, the range of users has also grown exponentially. Even ten-man patrols now have drones to scout out the terrain ahead to avoid getting surprised. Companies and battalions routinely launch drones to keep their Areas of Responsibility (AoR) under observation. Being limited in range and altitude, they may not affect air operations per se but will definitely clutter up the Electromagnetic (EM) Spectrum. Moreover, the routine in nature of the operations of such drones, especially in peacetime, lends itself to coordination. However, during active operations or hostilities, users at Brigade and Divisional levels will most often not have the time to coordinate and will use whatever resources they have at their disposal. In practice, every Tau, Dhanno, and Hari will be launching drones at will. 

There would also be other ground-based systems operating in the tactical battle area, viz artillery, long-range vectors and air defence units. Each of these are also ‘users’ of the air space when they are firing, with their shells going as high as 10,000-15,000 metres above mean sea level, which falls within the operating altitudes of fixed-wing aircraft and UAVs. Moreover, the ranges of long-range vectors are ever increasing, and hence an entire corridor of about 60-80 kilometers thus becomes technically ‘out of bounds’ for all other users. 

When one considers a tactical scenario of an offensive with corresponding defensive/counter-offensive operations by the adversary, it might well translate into battle spaces, each with an area of 80-120 km in breadth, 60-80 km in depth, and up to 15-20 km in altitude, with some relatively dormant areas in between. Within this would be operating drones/UAVs launched at the Divisional level and below, looking for real-time intelligence in furtherance of their operations. All these activities of attack/counterattack, bombardment and counter-bombardment, air strikes and active air-defence measures would be happening at a frenetic pace simultaneously yet quite independently of each other.

Under such circumstances, the present method of air space management with a high degree of centralised command and control may not quite meet the requirements of a tactically fluid battlefield scenario. For example, each entity, an Integrated Battle Group (IBG) or Division, can be given its own defined Operating Zone in all three dimensions, within which they are free to use all the resources at their disposal. A chain of such Operating Zones would then cover the entire Tactical Battle Area (TBA) under respective Corps Headquarters, not all of which would be active. These Corps Headquarters, which have their dedicated Tactical Air Centres, can then coordinate with each other and be the interface with the Air Force through the Joint Army Air Operations Centre (JAAOC). The Corps Headquarters would, in turn, be subordinate directly to the Theatre Headquarters (as and when created and optimising the intermediate Command Headquarters), which would have the final say to deconflict varying requirements based on Theatre priorities.

In effect, there would be two types of Air Spaces, one with defined dimensions restricted to the TBA and under the management of the local Formation (Corps) Commander functioning in a decentralised manner, and another covering the rest of the air space both in enemy territory as well as the hinterland/rest of the country under the Air Force in concert with Civil Aviation Authorities in a more centralised way. Such an arrangement would prevent mutual interference from all airspace users, facilitate air defence identification, and allow for the safe movement of all air traffic, especially other commercial air traffic. This is particularly relevant for UAV missions which are both pre-planned and immediate. More often than not, UAVs would operate from isolated tactical field locations, which may or may not always be in constant communication with their airspace management control centres in the theatre, i.e., the JAAOC. 

Such an arrangement, though resulting in two agencies coordinating the air space management function, is perhaps necessary because of the proliferation of users on the battlefield. No single agency can possibly hope to coordinate the activities of so many users, more so under the shadow of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) and the Fog of War. In any case, one cannot say ‘guns tight’ to enemy artillery and long-range vectors. Decentralisation will, therefore, be essential to ensure the optimal utilisation of all available resources and to give freedom of operation to the Commanders on the ground. Changes in technology necessitate changes in our tactics, techniques and procedures. There are many lessons to be drawn from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, more so on the usage of drones and other unmanned platforms, and the command-and-control arrangements for the same. Centralised planning and decentralised operations are the way forward.

Gen. MM Naravane served as India’s 27th Chief of Army Staff

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