India’s emergence as a strategic actor in Asia has drawn attention to its Navy’s role as a security provider in the Indian Ocean and it would be apt to discuss this on the eve of the Navy Day. This is even more pertinent with new leadership at the helm of Indian Navy Admiral Hari Kumar, Chief of Naval Staff who has inherited an Indo-Pacific, which is increasingly becoming a geostrategic focal point for China and India, as both countries engage in a growing competition. The Covid-19 has hit the three services with restrained budget, however, without the necessary investments in its hard-power Naval Capabilities, India’s vision of a “safe, free, and open Indo-Pacific” will remain in danger.
With growing maritime reach, and an admirable record of service in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Navy (IN) is widely seen as an important security player in the Asian commons. It is a technology-savvy force. The new-generation platforms that it operates are equipped with cutting-edge technology. Beyond securing the critical Indian Ocean Sea lanes, however, the Navy has also had to deal with a sharp uptick in irregular threats in India’s near-seas. Ever so often, the mission has involved combating extra-regional influence in India’s maritime neighbourhood through subtle power projection.
India’s maritime analysts have been worried not only about the deployment of Chinese warships and nuclear submarines in India’s near-seas but also the Chinese fishing militia and growing number of CCP (N) Research Vessels. The anxiety has been heightened by South Asia’s emergence as a theatre of geopolitical contestation, leading to urgent calls within the Indian strategic community to speed up IN’s modernisation. Asia’s murky power politics has highlighted the strategic imperative of robust maritime presence operations in the near-littorals.
The impact of technology on warfare and security has been demonstrated many times including as late as last week when the Chinese ASAT test risked the ISS. The unavoidable diffusion of technology has added to concerns about the possibility of technology reaching irresponsible hands or rogue governments who are not in favour of rule-based orders. The government has already taken concrete steps in this direction. In 2018, having identified the potential impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) across sectors, it entrusted NITI Aaayog and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with the task of establishing a roadmap for devising a national programme, aimed at research and development (R&D) of AI applications in the social sector and armed forces respectively.
Indian Navy has been a pioneer in adopting Artificial Intelligence, as it partnered with private companies like M/s Tardid Technologies Pvt Ltd in collaboration with IITH and UoH (University of Hyderabad) for “AI based Autonomous Fatigue Life Assessment” for structures. The long-term goals of the Indian Navy of transforming to a 200-ship force by 2027 and its continued impetus to maintain optimal combat capability are repeatedly put to test by diminishing capital availability and shortages in manpower. It is therefore imperative that the Indian Navy look to leverage the benefits of AI/ML-based technologies for improving organisational efficiencies at various levels.
Furthering the relationship between Indian Navy and IIT Delhi on research in the underwater domain of Naval Electronic Systems, a MoU has been signed. The relationship dates back to the 1970s and key technologies for the Navy in the field of underwater electronics have been developed by the Centre for Applied Research in Electronics (CARE) at IIT Delhi but the momentum has been visible since last two years only.
Over the years, the Quad has expanded its agenda to adapt itself to face the gen-next threats in the Indo-Pacific, most notably the emerging technology. The Quad countries (Australia, India, Japan, and the US) affirm that the ways in which technology is designed, developed, governed, and used should be shaped by our shared democratic values and respect for universal human rights.
Amid the belligerent behaviour of China in the maritime continuum of the Indo-Pacific and growing trust and comfort between the four democracies it is only prudent that niche defence technology be shared to the Indian Navy, which is acting as a shield. This shield had been effective to turn the course of events at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) during the Galwan misadventure of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
A Chinese company Zhongtian Feilong recently conducted a test flight for its newly developed airborne swarm carrier, which is an unmanned aerial mother ship that can carry multiple smaller drones and release them in the air for missions like reconnaissance and attack. This approach could revolutionize future warfare, and when the mother ship, now limited in size, becomes larger, it has the potential of turning into a strategic platform from a tactical one. Impact of this can be felt in the defense of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. To immediately counterbalance this, the navy is staying firm on its plans for a third aircraft carrier, but discussions are on to tweak design plans to accommodate unmanned aerial vehicles apart from fighter aircraft. This combination of manned and unmanned systems as MuM-T would mean that the overall displacement of the aircraft carrier would come down from the proposed 65,000 tonnes, while also reducing the cost and time taken to build it. Indian Navy is also exploring how a large, fixed wing Unmanned Aerial System could be used for AEW, Strike and Air-to-Air refuelling missions as part of a future carrier air wing and maritime aviation force.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, Unmanned System’s SMEs predict that a further move towards viewing ships more as part of a system of systems is going to make leading navies to think less about whether they want to design a single warship or submarine and more about the capabilities they need to deliver and how they fit with other domains. The system of systems approach will further blur the boundaries by enabling a manned ship to work alongside uncrewed surface, underwater or air assets. This is reflected in modern destroyer, INS Visakhapatnam, which has just been commissioned, featuring mission bays from which these can be deployed. With Sea Guardian and P8-I doing MuM-T as a persistence ISR tools and ASW pickets, networked with the ship launched MH60-R, NSUS and UUVs along with swarms of Loitering Ammunition, future is actually not too futuristic.
Further, Indian Navy can also reconfigure a vessel at potentially quite short notice for different types of missions by going by containerization of these vessels. Containerised assets will also offer the option of readily reconfiguring civilian ships. This not only gives additional capability but could operate in a part of the world where a discrete, low observable, potentially deniable vessel would be preferable to an overt warship. While there’s a lot of potential in the technology and IN is investing hard in it, there are also many barriers to making this technology work. There are a lot of different versions of this vision, but there is no clear agreement on how this is going to work, and most of the challenges are more about things like culture and doctrine, organisation and procurement the human side of things,
the social side of things rather than the technology.
Maritime security threats in the Indian Ocean, humanitarian missions and a steady move towards augmenting its blue-water navy role is pushing the navy towards procuring autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) from domestic industry, with possible collaboration with the US. Further, with India’s large coastline, maritime trade interests in the Indian Ocean and real threats of smuggling and terrorism, UUVs/AUVs make an attractive tool in the hands of the navy.
The Navy is at a crossroads. It can follow the familiar path into the future, relying primarily on tried-and-true capabilities that have proven their worth over the last half century. Or it can place somewhat less reliance on
traditional forces while exploiting rapidly emerging technologies to create a very different fleet to meet what will likely be very different future challenges.
In short, if the country’s navy is to leap into the future of a bigger, it will likely find itself embracing a familiar symbol of its past, the aircraft carriers but only this time it would have both assets which are both Manned and Unmanned.