Blood, Sweat & Tears

The tech driven future wars will need more than this

Pravin Sawhney

The tragedy of the Indian defence leadership is that every time they want to sound in sync with the emerging technologies, they expose their complete ignorance. The most recent example of this has been the creation of quantum laboratory at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE) in Mhow, which the chief of army staff, Gen. M.M. Naravane visited in December 2021.

Following his visit, the government issued a press release which stated that the quantum lab also has Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cyberwar centres since the army has identified quantum technologies, AI, and cyber as key emerging technologies for war. This is nothing but throwing random words in the hope that they will sound impressive. The truth is that these technologies fall in the civil/ commercial domain and the army should have nothing to do with their incubation. It should only be concerned about their application in concert with the commercial enterprises. It should instead have focused on military specific technologies. Interestingly, the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) which advises the National Security Advisor has supported the MCTE in building the quantum lab.

Emerging or disruptive technologies fall in three categories: commercial technologies, military specific technologies, and futuristic or wild card technologies. To put things into perspective, AI, which is at the heart of the fourth industrial revolution on the commercial side, and will also change the character of war, is a general purpose and dual-use technology that vastly enables other technologies like cyber, sensors, data analytics, cloud computing, autonomy, genomics, and synthetic biology to name a few. These emerging technologies and AI are best incubated on the commercial side since they require an expansive and expensive AI ecosystem comprising hardware, software, data, regulatory norms, talent, government and private companies’ finances in research and development, money from venture capitalists, and market (domestic and foreign) for products.

Military specific technologies include hypersonic missiles, Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), and directed energy weapons (laser and microwave weapons), while the wild card ones are quantum technologies (quantum computing, communications, and sensing), brain computer interface, and Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). The wild card technologies are not likely to be operationalised anytime soon, but when they do, they will bring a paradigm shift in warfare, so much that instead of the character of war, the nature of war would change too.

Prime Minister Modi launched iDEX at DefExpo 2018

The nature of war is what war is—violence and loss of life—, and the character of war is how it is to be fought. In the recorded history of warfare, the nature of war has remained constant and is a key factor in determination of victory or defeat. Now consider a situation when there are no humans on the battlefield, only unmanned systems and intelligent robots fighting one another. In such a war, which is no longer inconceivable, humans would be planners, managers, and commanders ‘on the loop’ (holding the emergency button to end operations if unmanned war goes horribly wrong) or ‘out of the loop’ (mere spectators on the ringside); loop refers to the sensors to shooter cycle. At present, humans remain ‘in the loop’ or in command of operations.

Quantum computers have the potential to change the nature of war. Unlike traditional computers which code information for transmission in binary of either ‘0’ or ‘1’ called bits, quantum computers work on quantum physics principle of ‘qubits’, where both ‘1’ and ‘0’ exist together, depending upon how the observation is made. This phenomenon of smallest element in nature existing at two places at the same time is called ‘super-imposition.’ Another peculiarity of ‘qubit’ is ‘entanglement’ which involves two particles showing same properties irrespective of their separated distance.

Since the information packed as codes in ‘qubits’ would be far greater than in ‘bits’, the computing power would be incredibly higher. At present, what is available is Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) which works in single domain doing tasks faster and more accurate than humans. Since it lacks cognitive capabilities of humans, ANI is unable to assess right from wrong on battlefield and is highly susceptible to adversarial learning (enemy’s cyber and electronic warfare).

While no one is willing to put a timeline to when they could become operational, all experts are confident that quantum computers will usher in a new level of computer processing power, and they will likely usher in the singularity in unmanned systems and robots, the point in time when intelligent machines greatly exceed the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest. While worrying that this level of AI—called AGI—could create terminators, experts know well that technology, like a genie, cannot be put back into the bottle.

There are, however, two problems with realisation of quantum computers: De-coherence and error correction. Since ‘qubits’ can be sustained only at low temperatures of below zero degree centigrade, they lose their form (coherence) in a split second when brought to room temperature. Moreover, noise (which is natural in environment) also disintegrates the ‘qubit’ form. To overcome these challenges of quantum computing, Chinese have invested billions of dollars; they have even created a quantum research city.

China’s hypersonic missile DF-17

Other quantum technologies like quantum cryptography, quantum sensing, and quantum communications also follow principles of quantum sciences and, at present, remain inclusive. For example, it is believed that Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) based on ‘entanglement’ would make quantum cryptography uncrackable. This is a mere hypothesis since cyber technology too would advance from ANI to AGI with quantum computers to nullify QKD advantage.

It needs to be understood that while select European countries are working on quantum sciences, the real race for quantum computing is primarily between China and the US. For instance, even Pakistan, with China’s help, set up Centre of Artificial Intelligence and Computing (CENAIC) with cognitive electronic warfare as its first project in August 2020. Given all this, what was the need for Indian Army to set up a quantum lab when (a) it has little to show in AI and emerging technologies, (b) it has not given adequate attention to PLA warfare, (c) it does not have funds, expertise, and ecosystem to meet the quantum technologies’ challenge?

If the NSCS and Indian military had paid attention to PLA’s war concepts, it would have formulated its own assassin’s mace strategy to meet the challenge on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Assassin’s mace is Chinese war tradition based on deception where you out-think rather than out-fight your enemy. Deep down, this strategy requires knowledge of three aspects about the enemy: his war fighting culture; technologies he has; and his war concepts or how to fight a war. This does not take quantum technologies which are in development stages into consideration.

Since India woke up to the reality of AI and disruptive technologies in warfare only in May 2020 when it realised that PLA was its main enemy, it should device its technology strategy carefully. I believe that of the eighteen disruptive technologies, namely, cyber, space, 5G wireless, hypersonic missiles, AI, autonomy, directed energy weapons, network communications, microelectronics, nanotechnology, missile defence, quantum sciences, nuclear triad, data, cloud computing, electronic warfare, sensors, and biotechnology, the NSA/NSCS and Indian military should focus on: cyber, electronic warfare, 5G, AI, hypersonic and cruise missiles, missile defence, sensors, data, and cloud computing. Of these, cyber and AI should be under the NSA/NSCS since they require whole-of-nation approach. Electronic warfare, and hypersonic and cruise missiles should be defence ministry’s topmost priority.

Moreover, as the PLA’s informatised (information supremacy) and intelligentised (intelligence supremacy) wars (that it would fight with the Indian military) are about total cognitive (mental) defeat with minimal bloodshed of the enemy, cyber war would be at the front and centre of its operations in peacetime and war. Cyberwar has the ability to realise Sun Tzu’s idea of ‘victorious warriors win first and then go to war’, since it affects cyberspace, electromagnetic spectrum and space assets.

Today, China has cyberweapons for countervalue (strategic) and counterforce (military) targeting. Strategic targets meant for massive disruptions in civil society, would include power grids, nuclear plants, telecommunication services, manufacturing hubs, information and communication services, satellite stations, financial institutes, hospitals and other essential services, water supplies, trains, airports, and everything which would impact the daily lives of the citizens. The purpose would be to do maximum damage by choosing vital targets which would create panic and chaos within the people resulting in cognitive defeat of the government.

Planning cyberwar campaign would be a long-drawn and elaborate process where cyber weapons’ effect would be linked to target’s importance, adversary’s reaction to cyberattacks, ability to recover, and what lessons it learnt from being attacked. Certain vital targets like the Prime Minister’s Office, which would have better cyber defence, would need to be monitored and worked upon for months, even years. All these factors come under the rubric of Battle Damage Assessment (BDA); there is a direct linkage between cyberwar and BDA. Like all military operations, BDA is a part of feedback on the last operation to plan the next bigger one.

Cyberspace is emerging as a new war domain

Cyberwar campaign preparations differ from traditional military campaigns in three respects: One, it would be long drawn with no time limits. Two, since no nation has conducted a cyberwar yet, targeted people may not get to know until it is very late that a war is going on. The truth is most experts do not even agree on cyberwar taxonomy with many even questioning its existence. And three, a nation which conducts cyberwar will have the first mover advantage in developing campaign strategies and management of the primary battlespace for optimal operational gains.

China is known to have done innumerable cyber-attacks on vital Indian targets. For example, the October 2020 attacks in Mumbai amidst the Ladakh stand-off led to an unprecedented power outage, temporarily disrupting civilian life—trains stopped, stock exchange had to shut down, hospitals switched to emergency power generators and so on. These were part of BDA for cyber campaign planning.

Given that cyber has a prominent military role, should Indian military establish a cyber command by elevating the present Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) established in September 2018? The answer is no.

snake-bot, spy-ball and spy-roller

A command will imply a military domain, like air, land and sea. As of now, the Indian military needs to build cyber as a credible force multiplier with defensive and offensive capabilities before it considers making it into a war domain. Once a war domain is formed, war concepts for how a war should be fought change. With three physical war domains of land, air, sea, and a virtual cyber domain, Indian military would then have to work on the concepts of Multi Domain Operations (MDO) from the present Air Land battle war concept. This would require major structural changes—not to talk of mindset, training and military education. Considering that the DCA still has several shortcomings, the Indian armed forces cannot realistically graduate to MDO.

With these home truths, it is curious that the Indian Army, according to the PIB press release, has unilaterally set-up cyber security labs and cyber range at MTCE in Mhow without consulting the other two services. Since DCA is a tri-services organisation under the Integrated Defence Headquarters (IDHQ), shouldn’t training on cyber warfare be done under it as well? Or are the services once again engaging in one-upmanship for attention-seeking without the focus on capability building to counter PLA’s war.


The Fearless Fails to Rise

On 1 October 2020, most national newspapers reported that India had moved its 1,000km range indigenous Nirbhay (fearless) subsonic cruise missile to the Line of Actual Control as part of the troops build up against China. This was odd.

Nirbhay LACM

The maiden test of this missile with an indigenous small turbofan engine (STFE) was scheduled in the second week of October. But the defence minister Rajnath Singh, as head of the Defence Acquisition Council, not only cleared the induction of the missile but its forward deployment too before it was tested, formally inducted and operationalised by the Indian Army. In normal circumstances, operationalisation of a missile like this could take up to one year after its induction into the army. Not in India though, where the deployment trajectory was clearly turned on its head.

Meanwhile, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) told the media that the subsonic missile ‘has a single shot kill ratio of more than 90 per cent,’ adding ‘the missile which travels at a speed of 0.7 Mach has both terrain-hugging and sea-skimming capability that helps it avoid detection and counter-measures.’ A general, who cannot be named, told me that Nirbhay had indeed been deployed.

Putting a spanner in Rajnath Singh’s proactiveness, Nirbhay failed the scheduled test on 11 October 2020. Undeterred, DRDO attributed it to a minor snag.

A few months later, in February 2021, I attended India’s premier aviation show Aero India in Bengaluru. Inside DRDO’s massive pavilion, there was huge a crowd at its aviation section, with queries on the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft and the futuristic Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). A model of Nirbhay missile was also on display but was not attracting much attention. A senior member of the Nirbhay team sitting all by himself was happy to chat. In response to my query on Nirbhay induction into the Army, he said that Nirbhay induction, if at all it happened, was a decade away. Before that, there were technical, hardware and software issues which need resolution, he said.

According to him, there were three main unresolved issues with the missile. One, the indigenous small turbofan engine (STFE) built by DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment in October 2020 need rigorous testing. Two, the radar altimeter need validation, and three, terminal homing with radio frequency/ electro optic/ infra-red seeker especially for moving targets like ships need confirmation by thorough experimentation.

The scientist said DRDO’s interest in Nirbhay was in competition with the BrahMos joint venture with Russia. Since BrahMos supersonic cruise had been successful and was inducted in all three services, the DRDO felt it needed to announce an indigenous project in a grand fashion.





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