The prototypes showcased at the recently concluded Aero India 2023 at Bengaluru are symptomatic of two major shifts underway within the Indian Armed Forces. The first is the move towards ‘Atmanirbharta’ or self-reliance, while the second is an added emphasis on critical and emerging technologies (CET). While self-reliance or indigenisation in defence has unlocked the entrepreneurial spirit of the Indian private sector and is essential for retaining the country’s strategic autonomy, a move towards mainstreaming CETs is equally important given the changed nature of the battlefield facing India today.
By Akshat Upadhyay
This Brief examines the importance of CETs in the military domain, the efforts undertaken by the Indian government and the Armed Forces in promoting the use of CETs and the optimum organisational structure for absorption of these technologies and finally recommends some steps that need to be undertaken so that these technologies can be utilised to their full potential.
Changed Nature and Character of War
It has become quite a cliché to talk about the changed character of war or HOW war is fought. The presumptive component is the unchanged nature of war or WHAT war entails. War, at its most basic and primal level, is understood as the calibrated use of violence to attain political objectives. It is taken for granted that at the foundational level this notion holds true, i.e., war is about violence and only the tools, organisation and application of violence for gaining political ends are bound to change. However, of late there has been a change in the way war is conceptualised. Warfare has become both non-contact and non-kinetic in its character and the nature of war has become diffused, i.e., violence is no longer the scaffolding on which war is visualised. This is due to a number of technological and historical factors. Due to the limited scope of this Brief, only the technological factors will be examined.
Three significant technological shifts have taken place since the end of World War II. Advances in semiconductor technology, creation of data through the process of digitisation and finally, systems integration have had a profound impact on the way war is imagined and fought. These three processes have combined to create a host of new technologies, collectively called critical and emerging technologies (CETs). The CETs include artificial intelligence (AI), quantum processing, advanced unmanned systems, internet of things (IoT) and cloud computing, among others. The common thread is electronics and data. Electronics and therefore, semiconductors, have become ubiquitous in the modern age.
Non-kinetic warfare, i.e., the use of non-violent methods of warfighting, has diffused with far-reaching effects. Disinformation and propaganda has become amenable to being individualised. Similarly, the dependence of countries on access to the latest electronics components for growth has created leverages for certain countries controlling chokepoints of the semiconductor supply chains. Export controls and outright bans can be used, again, as part of non-kinetic means of waging war. On the non-contact front, the precision revolution that started in the 1970s in the later stages of the Vietnam War and which reached its high point during the First Gulf war, has combined with the ongoing data revolution to create precise and deadly weapon systems supplemented by sensor-fusion, advanced intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) and the ability of joint fires without the need for massing forces. Both non-contact and non-kinetic means of warfighting are dependent on CETs.
Why are CETs Important?
CETs have become essential components in the warfighting domain due to the three shifts alluded to earlier. Advances in semiconductor technology has led primarily to generation of massive amounts of data. This has become possible due to the ‘PC revolution’ which led to computers being mainstreamed in citizens’ homes, followed by the advent of smartphones, pioneered by Apple and finally the current phase, which is dominated by ‘wearables’ such as smart watches, and IoT devices like smart bulbs, speakers, cameras, etc. At every stage, the cost per unit of these devices has decreased exponentially. Then Intel Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Paul Otellini’s 2013 prediction that the cost of personal computing devices will come down to as low as US$ 100 as sales rise exponentially, has indeed come true. Mainframe computers, for instance, initially costed tens of thousands of dollars since limited numbers were sold. He also predicted that the next generation of PCs would cost less than US$ 1000 per unit with more than 300 million units being sold and the future generation of computing devices would further be priced at close to US$ 100 per unit and sales estimated at 3 billion units.
While the global shipment of smartphones in 2022 was 1.2 billion units, the sale of tablets in the same period was 163.2 million units,making it a total of 1.36 billion units. These are the figures of only one year. There is a significant percentage of the global population which already has slightly dated mobile phones. As per the World Bank estimates, the global internet penetration, calculated as the percentage of individuals with an active internet connection, is close to 60 per cent. Also, the number of ‘unique’ mobile phone users in the world is now close to 5.5 billion.
These figures highlight two important points: the world is increasingly becoming more connected through platforms and that a staggering amount of data is being produced, stored and processed around the world in real-time. As per an estimate, data produced in 2022 was 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. This is ten followed by 30 zeros. All aspects of human activity including biometrics, social interactions, finances, entertainment, politics and ideologies are being moderated through these devices and platforms. The implications are wide. The possibility of affecting individuals across countries through influence, coordination and radicalisation are immense, creating vulnerabilities from a national security point of view. There are examples of election fraud and genocide by exploiting this connectivity. Similarly, civilian domains have been weaponised using non-kinetic tools of warfighting. Ban on Russian access to semiconductors, export controls against China in the fields of semiconductor manufacturing equipment (SMEs) and chips for AI, cyber-attacks against power grids and disinformation campaigns are some of the ways non-kinetic war is being waged by countries.
Four other advances due to the semiconductor revolution relate to the field of AI, quantum cryptography, precision munitions and sensor fusion/systems integration. The clustering together of increasing numbers of transistors within a single piece of chip has led to powerful processors such as graphics processing units (GPUs) and tensor processing units (TPUs) which have the capability of being ‘trained’ on vast amounts of data being generated, thereby creating stronger AI programmes. Similarly, the semiconductor revolution has also given rise to quantum cryptography which both holds the potential of ensuring impossible-to-hack communications as well as breaking erstwhile secure communications. Precision munitions have the potential to target specific platforms and personalities and avoid collateral damage on the battlefield. The lethality of precision munitions is enhanced by increasing fusion of sensors, where data from a number of analog and digital sensors is fused through standards and plug-and-play platforms, edge computing and use of AI for creating strike options for the commanders.
The fourth technological shift, systems integration, has been in the making for a while. Systems integration can be classified into two parts: within body and outside-body. Outside-body integration comprises innovations such as the combined-arms manoeuvres during World War II where different platforms such as tanks, infantry and steep-dive bombers like the Stukas were integrated into a single fighting force through organisation and introduction of radio communication. These were responsible for the blitzkrieg. Similarly, the navy and air forces have created formations where complementary capabilities fielded by different platforms are combined for battlefield effect, e.g., carrier battle groups (CBGs) and strike packages. These are held together by advances in communication and data integration where a command centre (static or mobile) with an array of encryption, communication and decision-making tools coordinates the operations of various platforms.
Within-body systems integration is a relatively new phenomenon. It is based on the recognition that the capabilities of conventional platforms can be enhanced by replacing or adding enabler modules. For example, the same unmanned aerial system (UAS) could use different payloads for executing vastly different missions. Cameras, missiles, infrared sensors and even compatible communication modules can lead to the UAS acting as an ISTAR or kinetic platform or wingman to a manned fighter. This modularity has been made possible due to the semiconductor revolution. Similarly, several modernisation programmes around the world have taken the infantry soldier as a system, adding upgrades that may heighten his cognitive capabilities, enhance his firepower range and allow him to communicate to nearby in-situ assets.
Categories of CETs
There have been attempts to classify CETs into categories to increase understanding about these technologies and highlight their utility. One such attempt is by the United States National Defense University (NDU), which classifies CETs under four heads namely, perception, processing, cognition; performance and materials; communication, navigation and targeting; and manufacturing, logistics and supply chain. This Brief suggests another way of classification in terms of their use in war, i.e., as battlefield and over-the-horizon (OTH) CET. Battlefield CET refers to those technologies that can be used for warfighting and used explicitly on the battlefield. These include sensor fusion where data from analog and digital sensors is standardised and fed into a system generating a common operating picture (COP).
This data can be further used by creating multiple strike options using AI, similar to the ones being used by the Ukrainians in the ongoing conflict. Battlefield CETs also comprise advanced unmanned systems with multiple payloads such as infrared (IR) and/or light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors, combat cloud, edge computing, internet of military things (IoMT), space based ISR, electronic warfare (EW) and cyber warfare against military systems.
OTH CET comprises technology which can be used in the non-kinetic domain and includes cyber-physical attacks, social engineering, disinformation, influence operations, gene editing, big data analytics (BDA) and energy capture and storage. There are certain technologies which are common in both the sets, based on their usage since most are based on data and are dual-use in nature.
Acquisition of technologies for the Armed Forces is the first step towards operationalising them. The second and third steps, i.e., absorbing and scaling them, are more critical. Absorbing a particular technology within the Forces refers to the process of aligning the organisational structure with the technology for optimum results on the battlefield, in whatever manner it may be defined. Scaling refers to the mass production of the technology platforms so that it reaches the user in due time.
Matching Technology with Structure
The current organisational structure of the Indian Armed Forces has been created, conceptualised and honed to fight a particular form of warfare and in which the Forces have gained a professional edge. This form of warfare has certain attributes: focus on combined-arms operations, use of mechanised platforms in manoeuvre battles, emphasis on territory and/or attrition and hierarchical directives and orders. This is an ideal structure for fighting large-scale conventional wars. The two most recent conflicts, i.e., Armenia–Azerbaijan and the ongoing Russia–Ukraine one, have thrown up radically different interpretations of the use of conventional force in achieving political objectives. While military force was used in the former to force a political outcome in Azerbaijan’s favour, the latter has highlighted the tenuous link between the use of violence and achieving political aims. As a result, one cannot discard the conventional warfighting paradigm.
However, there is a need to rethink organisational structures in terms of optimally integrating CETs. Certain steps have indeed been taken in this direction. For example, the Indian Army is in the process of inducting swarm drones into its mechanised forces, at the same time reported to be procuring close to 2,000 drones through a variety of manufacturers—400 for logistical support and around 1,500 for ISTAR purposes. Swarm drones, powered by AI and edge computing, have the capability to overwhelm enemy air defence systems, and saturate airfields and artillery gun concentrations, extending the range and target set of the force operating them.
However, the procurement of drones from multiple suppliers need to be coordinated in terms of software and firmware compatibility, standardised data formats, communication systems and cybersecurity. Swarm drones function on the presumption of autonomy, in selecting and neutralising targets. How much autonomy has been provided to the drones, whether it is limited only to collision avoidance and collaborative action in terms of recouping losses or is also extendable to the selection and neutralisation of targets, is a matter of conjecture.
For autonomous systems, a ‘man-on-the-loop’ as a failsafe measure always needs to be present. However, in a communication-contested environment, this may not always be the case. Serious discussion is, therefore, required on responsible AI and AI ethics. On the organisational front, there is a need to boost human autonomy by delegating actions to junior commanders and the structure of the forces needs to reflect this. Modular forces capable of point air defence (AD) and supplemented by micro UAVs for local ISR and plug-and-play wearable modules for a broader operational picture may be one of the ways that the future force may be conceived of.
Similarly, for absorbing AI, there is a requirement of a data standards policy that fulfils two criteria: convert analog data within the Services to digital and; collection, collation and storage of the data, preferably in consonance with the National Data Governance Framework Policy. In case of OTH CETs, the requirement is of collaborating with sister agencies for shaping common and reinforcing narratives, preventing information fratricide and knowledge sharing. Operations of this magnitude require certain capabilities of the Forces to be available in a supplementary manner. These are just some of the examples of major requirements for absorbing and then scaling technologies into the Armed Forces.
Technology absorption is a function of both the organisational structure and the technology itself. Neither can be effective without the other. Technologies and their enablers are themselves products of the zeitgeist or the social milieu in which they are conceptualised and formed. Therefore, attempting to induct or absorb technologies without a corresponding change in structures may not yield the desired outcomes. Therefore, it is imperative that serious debates be undertaken within the forces regarding the future force structures necessary for winning in the competition continuum.
This article first appeared in www.idsa.in and it belongs to them.