China is betting big on disruptive technologies like AI, advanced robotics, quantum computing, hypersonic systems, new materials and renewable energy to establish military dominance through ‘informatisation’ and ‘intelligentisation’.
By Lt Gen PR Shankar (Retd)
Xi Jinping talks of ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ to ‘establish a community of common destiny’. Simply put, he seeks superpower status.To achieve it, China is undergoing an unparalleled military expansion and gearing to fight unrestricted ‘multi domain wars’. These wars will be beyond the ‘tangible’ domains of air, land and sea and expand into ‘intangible’ domains of economy, diplomacy, energy, space, nuclear and the electromagnetic spectrum. China is betting big on disruptive technologies like AI, advanced robotics, quantum computing, hypersonic systems, new materials and renewable energy to establish military dominance through ‘informatisation’ and ‘intelligentisation’. Comparatively, India’s advances in military science & technology seem to lag in scale, pace, consistency and content. Does India have the wherewithal to contest and deter China in the evolving multi domain environment and be a regional power in its own right ? If that can be done , the Pakistani angle is automatically catered for.
At the outset military science and technology is not a unitary subject. Any weapon system is an amalgamation of multiple sciences and technologies. For instance, a modern missile, aircraft or spacecraft has high end technologies related to materials, electronics, sensors, structures, design, propulsion, control, guidance, navigation, communication, warheads and more. Each of these in turn, is an integration of applied core sciences. Further, no country is self-sufficient in all technologies. All aim to integrate disparate technologies into a weapon system. It is also important to understand that the best technology is one which is effective in battle and not necessarily the cutting edge or sophisticated variety.Further, the battlefield in our context consists of the Himalayan high altitudes and the Indian Ocean Region dotted by the Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Overall, the Indian military geography is a technology dampener but places its own peculiar demands. Significantly, Indian Armed Forces are experienced and well versed with the battlefield demands on military technology. They can blend both to make a formidable and effective force. The question is whether the Indian Armed Forces have the technology and wherewithal to uphold the integrity and sovereignty of the nation. The answer is yes. It has been proven repeatedly. However if the question is whether they have adequate technology in the evolving multi domain environment as befitting a rising power, the answer is not yet. This aspect needs dilation.
India has full spectrum indigenous knowhow in space and nuclear domains. India’s robust programs have been developed since independence despite numerous sanctions. India has also indigenously developed complimentary rocket and missile technologies, through the Integrated Missile Development Program initiated in the 80’s. For long, these capacities were in different silos but are now being linked synergistically. The recent ASAT capability demonstration, the maritime domain awareness initiative of the Indian Navy and testing of Agni 5, with its tremendous reach, are some examples of India’s strategic military science and technology prowess working in harmony.
Energy is a key battlefield enabler. It is also a major national requirement in energy deficient India. Until recently, research in alternate energy technologies was lagging. However, that is changing. The Air Independent Propulsion system developed indigenously for the submarine program is based on fuel cell technology. Its adaptation to high altitudes along with investment in renewables will make a significant and positive contribution to our battlefield sustenance and stamina. Additionally , ISRO has made strides in the search for space based energy specially through fusion technology. India can be a powerhouse in the energy domain through an integrated approach.
India has the ‘end to end’ knowhow and capability to design, develop and produce/build most conventional systems. This capacity is due to sustained effort of the past decade. The Indian Navy leads the way with the capability to design and build warships. We have already built stealth frigates (INS Kolkata series) and are in the process of building submarines (normal and nuclear) and aircraft carriers indigenously. The Artillery modernisation program has been a success which includes, design and development/refurbishment of guns, missiles , rockets and ammunition. We have now started producing fighter aircraft (Tejas) and helicopters (Dhruv) indigenously. Military bridging equipment is almost completely indigenised. However there are many more technologies to master to attain strategic autonomy.
The Brahmos Missile system with a 3 Mach capability is a step short from being hypersonic. IIT Madras has recently developed the indigenous Shakti processor which will revolutionise and securitise all military grade computing systems and networks. A recent report indicated that the Chinese are protesting about Indian cyber activity. Our massive telecom networks provide the sheet anchor for military networking. All these examples are pointers that India has adequate scientific and technological wherewithal in disruptive technologies. This knowledge needs to be maximised. India has the human resource ability to develop high-end technologies. India must start mission mode dual use programs on AI, Cyber, Quantum technology, Advanced materials, Advanced computing, Semiconductor technology and Hypersonic technology for deployable systems. That is the challenge ahead
India’s process oriented,politico-military – bureaucratic – scientific defence establishment has not been able to stitch our strengths together. We have lacked vision and investment. This legacy issue has plagued India to depend heavily on arms import. Reduction of arms import, export orientation and self-sufficiency has just started taking root under the Atmanirbharta program. Capacity building and investing in technology is an incrementally slow process in democratic India.Our scientific potential is never in doubt. The way India developed effective vaccines, at scale, in the midst of a pandemic, from scratch, should set aside all doubts. We have to transfer this successful work ethos and model into the defence establishment to ensure that our forces have the requisite technology and weapon systems to do their job effectively. In this effort, our premier technical institutions, scientific establishments and private industry should be roped in to develop technology required for the forces. Last but not the least, a five trillion-dollar economy will need more security/ protection than now. That will need a greater degree of funding and commitment. There are hard yards in the road.
(Lt Gen P R Shankar, PVSM, AVSM, VSM is a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @ www.gunnersshot.com. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).