ISPR Tag Line
A Paper Free Army
by Major Zeeshan ul Haq

Pakistan Army has been pursuing the goal of computerization and automation for over three decades and a number of initiatives were launched in this quest. However, these efforts remained piece-meal and an all-encompassing army-wide auto-mation could not be realised until the recent past.

In 2008, in line with the vision of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, COAS to transform Pakistan Army into a 21st Century IT-enabled organization, a well-thought out strategy to deploy IT infrastructure and hardware was adopted. This strategy not only focused on state-of-the-art IT equipment, but also ensured upgrading of army's existing backbone networks to high-capacity data networks. Internal organizational re-adjustments were also done to bring all stakeholders under one umbrella. The strategy set interoperability, scalability and information security as the universal parameters for this transformation, along with realistic, yet challenging goals. The IT drive was kick-started in early 2008 and as opposed to standard practice of bottom-up model in such ventures; a top-down approach was followed.

General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi was automated at the onset, and then followed computerization of its formations spread across the country. It was a colossal task not only in the technological sense, but also from an administrative perspective due to the expanded structure of organization as the army setups are spread across the country in hostile terrain and far-flung areas. Coupled to this was the on-going operation in the adverse environment along the Western Border. However, this daunting challenge was managed quite well through a structured technique, whereby the main garrisons were targeted first and high-tech Data Centres were established country-wide in major military garrisons. Concurrently, the backbone network between these garrisons was also upgraded to support high speed data connectivity between the garrisons. By mid 2010, IT had penetrated down to all formation headquarters of Army. Progressively, connectivity within the garrisons was extended to units and sub-units; and by mid 2013 almost 95% of users within the Army gained access to a wide range of IT applications and services.

Arguably, high-speed/high-capacity data networks, established during a short span of 3 years, have been perhaps the greatest achievement of this IT drive. Army's inter-city and intra-city data networks, being a mix of wired and wireless technologies, are most enviable in the whole region. This network is now accessible in even the remotest army setups and allows over 50,000 users a consistent and reliable access to a variety of army-specific IT systems.

It is pertinent to highlight that in 2008, this drive started without any skilled manpower and trained resources for the purpose. Army had no previous experience of computerization at such a massive scale. With just a handful of resources, it was more of army's "get-the-job-done" approach that accomplished initial deployment of IT systems within the set timelines. Very limited formal training was imparted during the initial stages of the project. With the confidence building up gradually, and with more on-job-training, army's IT talent pool started expanding. As the project intensified and expanded to remote garrisons, so did the human resource of army's IT world. As of now, specialist officers and technicians from within the army are managing IT services, 24/7 across the country.

This dearth of skilled manpower was not only felt in IT systems' (or hardware) domain, but in the software architects and developers side as well. Despite such a state of affairs, army's top hierarchy very rightly identified the necessity of indigenous resource pool for deployment, operation and management, at the very inception of this project. Consequently, volunteer officers took-on the challenge of deploying IT systems and software, with a Can-Do attitude.

Human nature is resistant to change, and as with any other IT project, Change Management has been a humongous challenge in Pakistan Army as well. Users within army were reluctant to focus on a computer screen and manage routine affairs through clicks. However, as the IT drive was initiated right from the top, there was no option but to embrace the change as soon as possible. Users' objections of technical nature were addressed through application upgrades, while other complaints were dealt in the 'military way'. When, over an informal gathering, some officers complained to the Army Chief of non-availability of time to login into the system, he wittingly replied, "If I can find one hour in a day, so can everybody else".

Pakistan Army has come a long way over the last few years, in terms of computerization and automation, and the benefits of this drive are now evident throughout the organization. Earlier, routine letters used to take over 7 days (end-to-end) for petty issues like allotment of stores etc. Now, decisions of higher authority are just a click away, enhancing efficiency manifolds. Paper-free environment in the army has had a direct bearing on savings in terms of stationary items as well. Cost-benefit analysis of the same indicates a return-of-investment within 3-5 years, which can be scaled down even further if rationalization of manpower is also taken into consideration.

Establishment of country-wide IT infrastructure and backbone data networks has paved way for a plethora of applications and services. Initially, army focused on a document management and filing application as the main application, along with portal and email services. Nonetheless, ever since the IT highway has been fully functional, more complex applications have come up. Enterprise resource planning, healthcare, identity and access control and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are few of the core applications available to the users. Their corresponding impact on curtailing losses accrued in manual demand/supply and procurement procedures cannot be over emphasized. During Azm-e-Nau series of wargames, extension of these applications to troops in the field and trials of other decision-support applications was also carried out successfully. Command and Control applications have been aiding decision-makers along the Western Border as well.

Army's software development setup has grown to be the hallmark of this whole automation process. Army now extends its software development services to other government/semi-government organizations as well. All IT applications and services running in the army are indigenous. Resultantly, version upgrades and developing new applications specific to army's internal working environment can be accomplished swiftly, without any noticeable financial implication. The merits of indigenous software development are also noteworthy. There is a single department within the Army that oversees complete development of an application from its infancy to consolidation stage. This not only ensures conformity to international best practices, but also enables integration of various applications into the server-centric IT model of Army. The development methodology follows contemporary service-oriented technique and allows developers to exploit benefits of latest software-development toolkits.

Qualified and professional IT experts is another substantial asset that army has gained as a result of this computerization. Major organisational re-structuring acted as an enabler to promoting IT talent in the army. Resultantly, army now has over 500 skilled resources managing servers, network devices and applications; providing IT services to users in the garrisons as well as in the field. Mission-critical applications in the military environment demand regular hardware upgrades, and this in-turn translates to 24/7 availability of high-end resources. Army cannot afford, but to maintain its own qualified HR and now has a sizeable pool of high-end resources in all domains related to IT. These specialised officers are known as 'Information, Communication & Technical Officers' (ICTOs).

It can be stated with confidence that Army's automation is now fully mature, secure and developed. Army is now considering to utilise the interoperability of its IT environment by establishing lateral connectivity with sister services and other government organizations. This connectivity, coupled with the layered architecture of cyber security and information assurance, can extend advantages of Army's IT trans-formation to other government departments as well.

Last few years have been phenomenal in bringing about the IT revolution in Pakistan Army. The uphill task of deploying IT infrastructure and its subsequent management has been realisable due to the ownership, drive and support from the top level. Computerization in Pakistan Army is a classic example of "where there is a will, there is a way", and has given a jump-start to Pakistan Army in the 21st Century.

The writer is an 'Information, Communication & Technical Officer' (ICTO) and is among the pioneers of Pakistan Army's Computerization Project.

 (Courtesy Hilal Magazine)