In a timely intervention, Indian Army chief General M. M. Naravane encouraged the nation’s armed forces “to pay adequate emphasis on the available disruptive technologies that have dual use and are being driven by commercial entities and innovations” and emphasised the need for their adapted incorporation into the “Indian context.” Accordingly, as an extension of this effort, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India’s premier defence technology supplier, is reported to have setup a panel charged with enhancing its efficiency by reappraising its 57 laboratories and reducing their technological overlapping. This comes at a time when New Delhi’s strategic vulnerabilities have not only evolved but its technological gaps have also threateningly widened. Encountering both state and non-state actors, disruptive technological advancements have the potential to revolutionise India’s war-fighting capabilities. With the strengthening of a China-Pakistan axis coupled with the prospect of an intentional leakage of disruptive technology by Pakistan to its non-state proxies, it is imperative for Indian defence planners to think out of the box.
New Delhi’s concerns for a potential trickle down of this technology to non-state actors is well-founded against the backdrop of the Houthi rebels in Yemen claiming the responsibility for the successful attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities through a coordinated swarm drone strike in September 2019. Other examples of non-state actors exploiting freely available technology include the bombing of Ukrainian state ammunition dumps by alleged Ukrainian Separatists using thermite grenades delivered by drones causing great devastation between 2015 and 2017. Closer to home, there have been several reports of Pakistan supported non-state actors using drones to deliver weapons to create internal instability through terror attacks in Punjab and in the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. With the advancement of additive layer manufacturing (3D-printing) and its potential to significantly reduce the costs to produce devices like drones, the accessibility of such technology to non-state actors will only continue widen.
Although analysts have warned that these disruptive technologies ought not be considered the magic ingredient in military preparedness, it remains undeniable that their acquisition could potentially provide the state with a relative competitive advantage in the field. Over the last decade there have been several leaps in technologies and their projected trajectories which have provided militaries across the globe with a wide range of options and areas to enhance their capabilities. At the vanguard of these advancements are several key technologies which represent a significant disruption in contemporary military capabilities. Perhaps the most known and developing area with extensive capabilities of disruption is Artificial Intelligence (AI).
AI technology can be deployed in warfare using a combination of surveying, machine learning, searching and planning to ultimately analyse big data and automate decision-making. Through its unique and evolving algorithms, AI can provide a platform for the military which can streamline rapid responses to cyberattacks, conventional onslaughts and other types of electronic barrages. AI’s wide range of applications have been in military use ever since its incorporation into the DART logistics and battle management system by the US during the First Gulf War in 1991. Consequently, Russia and China, amongst other leading militaries have made an active effort to expand its usage. India has also followed suit by setting up a multi stakeholder task force in 2018 to formulate strategy to enhance the deployment of AI in its military functions, followed by the establishment of the Defence AI Council in 2019.
AI technology can be deployed in warfare using a combination of surveying, machine learning, searching and planning to ultimately analyse big data and automate decision-making
One of the most talked about extensions of AI has been its application in robotics to create smarter autonomous Unmanned (Aerial/Ground/Underwater) Vehicles. Their application in warfare is wide ranging from reducing casualties, to providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection in the harshest of weather conditions. Leaders in this field have gone one step further by creating ‘drone swarms’ under which a large group of drones can act in unison carrying out a variety of complex military manoeuvres. The US in this pursuit, has created its Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Swarm Technology (LOCUST). China has also greatly honed its drone capabilities with analysts speculating that each drone can be equipped with mortars, grenades, and machine guns in a networked and coordinated attack. India has a long way to go with its primary UAVs being the Israeli Searchers and Herons, while its few indigenously developed UAVs continue to lag behind in relative capabilities. However, in 2019 the US and India announced under their Defence Technology Trade Initiative that they would jointly pursue development of swarm drones and anti-drone systems. Such technology can be of great utility to the Indian military, especially in patrolling inhospitable areas like the Aksai Chin.
AI also has the potential to contort and mould information enabling the creation of forgeries, of both photos and videos, enabling adversaries to control public discourse, erode public trust, spread false news, among other things. This new ‘deep fake and disinformation’ capability can indeed be used during peace and war to weaken the adversary’s state machinery and create domestic chaos. The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in order to combat this has a Media Forensics project designed specifically to detect such warfare. While India too has been attacked by deep fakes at various points, it lacks a coherent policy or strategy to counter this disruptive technology.
Hypersonic weapons appear to be in vogue presently with their disruptive impact, in both their cruise (capable of altitudes upto 100,000 feet) and glide (capable of altitudes above 100,000 feet) variants with the contemporary ‘hypersonic arms race’ being led by the Chinese DF-17, Russian Sarmat and the US Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. The utility of these weapons is stored in their speed which is around five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) and consequently gives them the ability to strike targets with high speed and precision virtually leaving little chance for their detection by the enemy. India also joined this race in 2019 with its indigenously developed the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) which can travel upto a speed of Mach 6.
A step up from the hypersonic weapons has been the development of ‘directed energy weapons’ (DEW) which essentially use millimetre waves, microwaves and electromagnetic pulses to perform a range of functions from crowd control and destruction of electronic systems in given radiuses to precise and quick destruction of objects in space. Following the US, China has deployed several types of DEWs ranging from anti-Satellite lasers, to other high-powered microwave, railgun, radiofrequency and particle beam munitions. The DRDO has set up the Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences and the Laser Science and Technology Centre for solely the development of DEWs, but production of a deployable weapon is awaited.
A step further into the future and at the cutting edge of technological disruption would perhaps be the harnessing of Quantum technology and its application into the military sphere. China is at the helm of this innovation which promises numerous prospects once achieved. Its military applications under the quantum key distribution, quantum cryptanalysis, and quantum sensing threaten to completely transform the military arena. It has been speculated that once achieved, this technology could provide the military with hack-resistant communications network, and unmatched computational superiority on the battle field.
A step further into the future and at the cutting edge of technological disruption would perhaps be the harnessing of Quantum technology and its application into the military sphere.
In the light of these significant technological advancements, the DRDO still remains caught up in the development of more traditional forms of technology even as it continues to face a variety of issues like delays, underbudgeting and superannuated technology. While in the past the Indian programmes of missile, cyber and space have seen considerable development, a shift of gears is perhaps imperative to proactively respond to the challenges being posed by new and emerging disruptive technologies.
It is clear that indigenous production of such technologies remains a crucial factor in their realistic military incorporation. It is therefore vital for the government to create an environment conducive to such innovation, because a majority of these technologies grow out of commercial pursuits and then due to its dual-use nature can be transferred and applied to the evolving military needs. Consequently, a civil-military synergy is critical for indigenous innovation and realistic technological enhancement. While recent steps by the Indian government to focus on incorporating these disruptive technologies is a welcome move, the only realisable and affordable route to achieve these innovations lie in government’s careful nurturing of a sustainable commercial domestic ecosystem.
In this direction, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent address where he reiterated his emphasis on making the Indian defence sector self-reliant through policy reforms such as banning the import of 101 weapon systems and permitting 74 per cent Foreign Direct Investment through the automatic route for defence manufacturing sends out a positive signal that New Delhi remains committed to boosting domestic innovation and production. Given India’s strategic environment, the incorporation of such avant-garde innovations will not only help it to catch up with its adversaries but also ensure military preparedness against non-conventional threats.