Indian Armed Forces push for integrating niche technologies

While the gamut of emerging technologies is largely comprising areas seemingly unconnected such as AI, blockchain, VR/AR, 5G connectivity, quantum technology, the aim is to transfer the cognitive load from humans to machines, freeing them to perform higher cognitive tasks and aiding in decision making processes.

Indian Armed Forces push for integrating niche technologies
While the gamut of emerging technologies is largely comprising areas seemingly unconnected such as AI, blockchain, VR/AR, 5G connectivity, quantum technology, the aim is to transfer the cognitive load from humans to machines, freeing them to perform higher cognitive tasks and aiding in decision making processes.

By Akshat Upadhyay

As India celebrates its 75th Independence Day in the form of “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav”, the Indian Armed Forces have much to be proud of. They have served the nation with the utmost professionalism and have, over a period of time, evolved in all three areas of technology, techniques and procedures (TTP). With exponential improvement in processing power, smartphone revolution and the ‘data’ fication of most aspects of human life, a number of technologies based on these features, collectively and colloquially known as emerging, disruptive or niche technologies, have been the site of cutting-edge research for both civil and military applications. The Indian military, as a whole, has warmed up to the idea of utilizing and integrating these technologies within its operations, logistics, administrative and technical functioning.

While the gamut of emerging technologies is largely comprising areas seemingly unconnected such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), brain-computer interfacing (BCI), bio-electronics, Blockchain, virtual/ augmented reality (VR/AR), cloud services, 5G connectivity, quantum technology and 3D printing, the underlying principle is the same: leveraging vast amounts of data or Big Data, networking and semiconductor based devices to carry out a number of functions, which were hithertofore deemed to be performed by human operators. The aim is, like previous technological innovations, to transfer the cognitive load from humans to machines, freeing them to perform higher cognitive tasks and aiding in decision making processes. There has been an evident push within the three Services as well as the Headquarters of the Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) to integrate a number of niche technologies within their organisational structures and incentivize the indigenous defence manufacturing industry in the process. Atmanirbhar Bharat and Make in India continue to remain lodestones for the same. Quite a few serving service Chiefs have identified, recognized and acknowledged the role of emerging technologies in the changing character of future warfare. This article will focus on four technologies namely AI, unmanned systems, new energy solutions and quantum technology.

Artificial intelligence in Defence

AIDef, a first-of-its-kind exhibition cum symposium on AI in Defence, was held on 11 July 2022. The event, organized by the Department of Defence Production (DDP) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) showcased 75 AI-based products, designed and built by the Services, research organisations such as the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), start-ups and the industry. Out of the 75 products, 15 were based on Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR), 10 on autonomous and unmanned robotic systems, 10 on intelligent monitoring systems, seven on manufacturing and maintenance, six each on process flow automation and natural language processing, four each on AI platform automation and perimeter security system, three each on internet of things (IoT) and operational data analytics, two on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), and one each on simulator/test equipment, logistics and supply chain management, block-chain based automation, cyber security and human behavioral analysis.

The Indian Army has started ideating on how to incorporate AI into its operations. A new ‘Wargame Research and Developing Centre (WARDEC)’ at New Delhi, designed in collaboration with the Gandhinagar-based Rashtriya Raksha University (RRU) will use AI to design VR wargames and enable personnel to test out their strategies using “metaverse enabled gameplay”. Two other in-house projects by the Army have either been deployed or are on the verge of being deployed. One is an AI-based system which distinguishes between signatures of humans, animals and vehicles from the feed of various battlefield surveillance radars (BFSRs) deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the North East, while the other is a wearable offline Mandarin translator based on NLP, which provides instant reciprocal translation between Mandarin and English. A Hindi version is also in the works. Similar AI products are also being trialled in the fields of military healthcare and predictive maintenance. An AI Centre has been established at Mhow, Madhya Pradesh.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) recently opened a new Centre of Excellence for AI under the aegis of UDAAN (Unit for Digitisation, Automation, Artificial Intelligence, and Application Networking). The intent of the centre is to research on AI-based applications, in consonance with Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs), industry and start-ups to create AI-based applications to enhance the situational awareness of the pilots. With new age flying machines already automating anywhere between 80-95% of the engagement cycle including detection, tracking and combat operations, algorithms will tend to dominate the flying experience. In this case it is imperative that the pilot retains the ability to monitor and decipher the multi-sensor readings and take appropriate actions in a complex air combat environment. This is where AI can step in and aid the pilot’s decision making process. The IAF’s firm belief is that AI should aid rather than replace the ‘man-in-the-machine’, reinforcing the principle that cognitive load from man to machine can only be partially transferred but never fully.

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The Indian Navy has also utilised NLP for developing translators for Mandarin, Hebrew and Russian languages. Subsets of AI such as computer vision are also being used for identification and classification of ships, surveillance and reconnaissance. The Navy has designated its INS Valsura in Jamnagar, Gujarat as the Centre of Excellence in Big Data and is in the process of establishing a similar centre on AI at INS Valsura. The aim of incorporating AI in naval operations is to enhance maritime domain awareness (MDA), predictive maintenance, data analytics, text mining and cybersecurity, among others.

Unmanned systems

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have been around in military service in various avatars for almost a century but their utility has been demonstrated in pivotal conflicts in Vietnam and Bekaa Valley in Syria. From being seen as tools for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), their utility multiplied post 9/11 as unmanned assassins of terrorists initially in Afghanistan and later in Iraq and a host of other countries. Today, the drone revolution has ensnared almost the entire world. Around 190 countries and non-state actors possess drones and use them for a variety of military and civilian purposes, while 26 possess unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). The incorporation of advanced sensors, edge processing and AI has enhanced the “God-mode” of these platforms, especially in relatively light air defence environments. The Indian Army demonstrated a drone swarm capability on its Army Day celebrations on 15 January 2021 which was technically not the ideal swarm, but it was a step in the right direction. An ideal swarm comprises autonomous air vehicles constantly communicating with each other to identify, designate and neutralise targets and can take evasive actions on their own in case of a communications breakdown or emergent threats. The Indian Armed Forces also plan to procure India’s first combat drone called Tapas, developed by the Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and various Army formations have gone in for the light weight Switch drone. Technology demonstrations on use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have also been held by the Indian Army’s design Bureau where a number of UGVs were showcased. A tracked version of UGV, called Mission Unmanned Tracked (MUNTRA), complete with a 120 mm gun is already in the works.

Similarly the IAF is in the process of operationalising its own version of manned unmanned teaming (MUMT) where a combined group of manned and unmanned air vehicles undertake integrated missions, complementing each other’s capabilities. The Combat Air Teaming Systems (CATS) Warrior, developed in a public private partnership (PPP) model between Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and a startup Newspace R&D, will function alongside existing IAF manned platforms such as the Jaguar, Tejas and Su-30 MKI. It will be an “autonomous wingman drone” capable of take-off and landing from land and sea and will be used for scouting, absorbing enemy fire and attacking targets, even in a kamikaze mode. The Indian Navy demonstrated its unmanned and AI capabilities with the demonstration of the Autonomous Fast Intercept Boat (AFIB) with state-of-the-art communication system, sensors, autonomous algorithms and propulsion system. The Navy also unveiled an unclassified version of its unmanned systems roadmap called the ‘Integrated Unmanned Road Map for Indian Navy’, during the second edition of the Naval Commanders’ Conference on 18 October 2021. There are serious efforts to increase the unmanned underwater capabilities of the Navy as well as maritime air operations and already a request for information (RFI) for 40 naval UAS (NUAS) has been sent out.

New energy solutions and quantum technology

The frightful manifestations of climate change related weather patterns have nudged the Armed Forces to also consider sustainable solutions to their energy needs. A demonstration of Electric Vehicles (EVs) was given to the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 22 April 2022 where companies such as Tata Motors, Perfect Metal Industries (PMI) and Revolt Motors showcased their EV products. A time bound roadmap for inducting EVs is also planned to be rolled out shortly, in line with the Indian Government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid &) Electric Vehicles in India (FAME-INDIA) schemes I and II. Three categories of EVs i.e. motorcycles, buses and cars will be procured in the first phase. The Indian Navy and IAF also have plans to procure EVs for their static installations. The Indian Navy has also drawn up a ‘Energy Conservation Roadmap’ to attempt independence from fossil fuels and has taken steps to monitor and measure energy consumption levels. Various combinations of ‘bio-fuels’ are also being attempted to reduce pollution levels.

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The Indian Army has set up a Quantum Lab at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE), in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. The aim is to undertake research into key areas of quantum computing such as quantum key distribution (QKD), quantum communication and post quantum cryptography, enhancing cybersecurity measures and leading to robust communication. Similarly, the Indian Navy is on the lookout for quantum sensors which can detect and track motion in the absence of geo-positioning systems (GPS) capabilities either in space or underwater.

The array of research, technology demonstration and usage of applications in the fields of emerging technologies by the Indian Armed Forces point to a growing confidence and capability of the Forces in these emerging areas. Sustained impetus to indigenous industries and quick absorption of these technologies within the Forces’ doctrines and operations will enable India’s rise as a technological powerhouse in the near future.

The author is a Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses. He has authored articles on Emerging Technologies, homegrown radicalisation, coercive diplomacy and future of warfare in a number of publications.

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