By Ruchin Sodhani.
The good part is that practically everyone – retired army officers, serving ones, analysts and politicians – agrees that the Indian Army needs to become what it presently is not. It needs to become a fighting machine that is lean, swift and effective against adversaries who have already made substantial progress in that direction.
Much of the discussion centres upon development and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) powered applications like drone swarms, autonomous fighting vehicles and airborne platforms, with some pointers directed at communications and space technologies.
And this is where the mirage dissolves to reveal the desert beyond.
Everything on the subject that is in the public domain – and there is nothing to suggest there is much else going on behind the curtains – speaks of a belief that modernising the army is mostly about acquiring and deploying the weapon systems that we see other, more technologically sophisticated armies use in televised conflicts.
That is a deadly error for an army that aims to be a first-rate fighting force, not just a face-saving device. An organisation needs to first prepare itself to assimilate advanced technologies. You do not simply mount a jet engine upon a jalopy and expect to get very far.
When organizations go for technology adoption, it is on the back of detailed homework. They first seek internal clarity about their goals, analyse their processes and visualise how technology will render many old processes redundant or change them fundamentally. It is not merely about inserting new devices at convenient points to make this faster or that easier, like replacing a typewriter with a word processor.
It is called process reengineering, and it involves a radical redesign of core processes. It often entails drastic organisational changes and redefining of treasured values. Such transformations are deep, wide and, in many ways, painful. They also call for endurance, knowledge and intellectual resources.
If the current processes are ponderous and error prone, as manual processes often are, so will be the processing of information and decision-making. What the organisation gains by deploying technologically advanced sensors and shooters will be more than lost through poor direction – powerful senses and limbs thrashing about without a brain that has the capacity to coordinate them.
Clearly, it is not a job to be handed off to consultants. The army will need to take the lead. And since not a word has been heard on just how that is going to happen, here are some suggestions on how to begin.
Start by putting together a team that possesses the operational and technical knowledge to draw up a skeleton project plan towards building a technology-based battlefield management system, redesigning wartime and peacetime processes and modifying organisational structures. The talent exists within the army. It needs to be selected and gathered, freed from the tyranny of “career management” by the Army Headquarters and – most importantly – empowered.
Follow it up by identifying and engaging consultants based on the empowered team’s inputs. Once again, talent exists within the country. The expanded team (soldiers, engineers, and other domain specialists) then produce a full-fledged project plan detailing the modules, their testing and deployment and the timelines.
Create strong disincentives for foot-dragging by anyone, at any level.
And ram it through.
There will be mistakes and glitches, but they will be sorted out. Even smaller organizations, both government and private, working in fields that are far more stable and predictable than the warzone, take several months to get to the other side of tech transformation. Not uncommonly, they still make mistakes that take time to rectify (think GST and income-tax portal implementation). For something as colossal and complex as the army, the project could run into years including some rework from time to time.
Meanwhile, continue filling up critical gaps in security through piecemeal deployment of advanced weapon systems.
Right now, an effort of this magnitude seems to be an incredibly tall order. The army’s collective mind appears wired to believe that it is fit for any war because of its vast experience in counterinsurgency operations and because of the grit it has undoubtedly shown in savage border conflicts. The confidence bred by these successes seems to have clouded what everyone in the army understands well – that a full-spectrum war is a different animal altogether.
Which, in turn, suggests that the driving impulse for the transformation project might have to come from outside the army, with an oversight mechanism that demands accountability from stakeholders at the highest levels.
This transformation is necessary not just for warfighting in the near future, but for decades to come. Without technology as the backbone of operations, not only will the army be less effective, but it will also never gather the vast amounts of data that are needed to create that magical creature called AI. That can only be built upon the data generated by previous iterations of technology. Without putting those in place, the future is no more than science fiction. Imported data will not do, just as US customers’ data will not help anyone sell their wares in India.
The army should get basic technologies and processes in place before distracting itself with popular AI tropes. AI needs mammoth amounts of historical data to train (and wars are anyway notorious for their disregard of history), works in extremely narrow domains, optimises for very specific objective functions (say, maximising revenue or minimising cost) and is useless with abstractions. It has some way to go before it learns to deal with the complexity of warfighting, and the path is currently quite obscure. Robot armies are not marching down the Brahmaputra valley anytime soon.
But India’s adversaries do seem to have a head start in warfighting technology, even discounting their propaganda. The moment of reckoning cannot be postponed indefinitely. In fact, the longer you procrastinate, the closer that moment draws itself. The army should start working on its transformation project yesterday.
Author is a supply chain professional who works at the intersection of operations and technology in the ecommerce industry. He served in the Army for twenty years before this.
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