Guest Column | Strengthen the Backbone

The Indian armed forces should focus on getting new defence technologies rather than upgrading older ones

Lt Gen. Abhay Krishna (retd)Lt Gen. Abhay Krishna (retd)

Rapid development in the domain of defence technology has taken place especially during last three decades. This has in turn led to the creation of advanced military systems changing the war fighting methodology. As a consequence, the decision-making space of a defender has got compressed exposing the critical targets at fatal risk. These targets were considered beyond the reach of the enemy till a few decades ago.

Armed forces of all developed countries today are rapidly enhancing their capabilities in cyber, space, robotics, directed energy weapons and quantum technology. Both the United States (US) and China are already into developing Artificial Intelligence in a big way and may come out finally by creating on ground a robotic-powered standing army.


Technology and Military Power

Technology is the backbone of any military power. The US is known to have developed the world’s latest advanced technologies in every field. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US was seen as the sole super power. But has this perspective now changed with the defence technologies being developed by both Russia and China for over a decade?

With the newly-developed advanced technologies now available, the concept of conventional war is gradually becoming obsolete and is being reduced to managing only localised conflicts without any long-term decisive impact on nations.

Post-World War II, a number of flashpoints involving militaries of powerful countries have been brewing — be it in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South China Sea or in the Indian Ocean. The world has witnessed the employment of deadly drones by the US which has the capability to locate and eliminate even individuals in the wilderness. The US is also known to have launched a robotic space vehicle, as also convert sea water into fuel.

Sometime ago, Russia claimed to have developed armour piercing weapons, collar radios and other gears giving a degree of tactical advantage to soldiers on the ground. China is now increasingly looking at military use of space as well as on the deep sea with fixed ocean floor acoustic array systems for anti-submarine warfare. In fact, the Indian Navy is always concerned about this likely development.

Actual strength, however, lies in successfully keeping the strategic weapons in hiding before deciding to use these. Hypersonic weapons cannot be intercepted due to their speed, manoeuvre capability and flight altitude. The US missile defence today is still not adequately geared up to intercept Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) of the type Russia and China possess. The US is thus looking at placing an additional layer of sensors in orbit to be able to intercept mix of ballistic and hypersonic missiles carrying nuclear weapons. Actual strategic strength, therefore, lies in ensuring combination of Artificial Intelligence, continued surveillance by a combination of satellites, underwater drones and big data analysis.

Information gathering about every aspect of the adversary to include his intentions, capability, actions, terrain etc and passing it down the chain for quick decision-making and action, is the need of the hour in today’s battlefield environment. Militaries of the world powers are, therefore, extensively investing their time, energy and money in developing new technologies such as 5G cellular network, multi-dimensional smart sensors, cognitive radars, microchips, analytic engines, autonomous vehicles with robots, cyber and hybrid warfare to include network attacks and media management.


Historical Perspective

Going back into ancient technology, it is believed that the first time a weapon got made was when the human civilisation graduated from Bronze to Iron age. However, as per the available historical records, large scale use of iron weapons was reportedly in the sixth century BC. Thereafter, came the horse cavalry and gun powder. Indian civilisation went through a number of Islamic invasions since the beginning of the 13th century. Later, with discovery of oil in the 18th century followed by industrialisation, rapid development in military technology was witnessed.

Gradually, cavalry was replaced by the infantry armed with rifles duly supported by machine guns and rocket artillery with high explosives based on nitro-glycerine. With industries growing as also railways and the telegraph services, land warfare dynamics also significantly transformed to be more lethal. This was duly augmented with the development in logistics, communication support, heavy battleships, mines, torpedo and medical facilities.

Finally, when the British left India after two centuries, the Indian armed forces had not only inherited a very well-organised and structured military system in place, but also had weapons and equipment with latest technology of that era.

The Indian Story

Technology serves a variety of purposes and makes one feel secure. In India, it has already entered every household through computers and smart phones. Technology has become part of daily life – from education to communication, security and ecommerce.

Despite 72 years of Independence and abundant natural resources, favourable climate, talented and efficient working population, rich cultural heritage, geographical advantage of having free access into the Indian Ocean, sizeable armed forces with boots on ground and being the largest importer of defence equipment, India is still not viewed even as a regional power.

Though the Indian armed forces have many roles to play, the primary mission is to defend India’s territorial integrity which will also involve attacking and destroying a strong enemy or a group of enemies if and when circumstances demand. However, even today, India’s focus is mainly on maintaining deterrence instead of a clear mode of attacking or defending.

Given the defence technologies currently available with world powers like the US, Russia, China and few others, it is clear that the Indian armed forces need to work out a definite time plan and embark upon an extensive military modernisation programme utilising the emerging technologies. The indigenous defence production initiative by the government of India must, therefore, focus on developing advanced weapon systems, next generation combat aircraft, submarines and advanced air defence systems.

Despite budgetary constraints, the military modernisation in India has been given a significant push, especially in the last few years. The Indian Army has inducted Ultra-Light Howitzer, advanced towed artillery guns and is looking forward to inducting Apache attack helicopters, future ready combat vehicles, lighter version of Arjun tanks, Russian Kamov Ka-226T helicopters in addition to upgraded Russian assault rifles.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is in the process of upgrading its MiG-29 fleet by rearming with advanced air-to-air missiles with increased fuel capacity and latest avionics, upgrading Su-30MKIs for carrying Brahmos cruise missiles with Zhuk radars with onboard computer and advanced electronic warfare systems. Similar upgradation is ongoing in case of the Mirage 2000 and Jaguar as well besides expedited production of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.

The Indian Navy has focussed on developing indigenous platforms, system sensors and weapons. While an indigenously-built diesel electric attack submarine has got inducted, the navy is currently looking at building more ships indigenously instead of procurement from foreign sources. In the backdrop of the increasing presence of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is investing more in anti-submarine ships, long range maritime recce aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, additional heavy-duty aircraft carriers, multi-role support vehicles and naval light aircraft. However, at present the Indian Navy has been asked to slash their requirement due to paucity of funds.

It is, somehow, widely believed that unless the armed forces cut down their increasing revenue expenditure ranging from salaries to day-to-day running costs that eats into capital outlay, the anticipated modernisation will never be able to take-off. It is true that cutting down non-essential expenditure will definitely provide some life to capital outlay for modernisation, but that will not be more than a lip service in the backdrop of investments actually required for achieving our set goal of becoming a regional military power. India’s defence modernisation dilemma can be overcome only when the Indian economy graduates from agrarian to defence equipment manufacturer and exporter. With military industrial complexes and defence corridors coming up, the process of major economic transformation has undoubtedly begun.


Beyond the Horizon

We need to exercise patience to allow time for the much-anticipated economic growth to touch USD 5 trillion in next five years. The modernisation plan currently worked out, however, must continue at whatever best pace possible in the given economic scenario; But at the same time, it must be ensured that the current modernisation plan must graduate from limiting ourselves to just upgrading the existing technology into instead breaking through the technologies.

Drones, autonomous weapons, nano technology, bio and chemical weapons are few emerging technologies which are adding a new dimension to the warfare methodology and own security. While India has been successful in advancing into the space industry as also in avionics programme to include active phased array radars, manufacturing Arjun tanks, infantry combat vehicles, Pinaka multi-battle rocket launchers, various missile to include Agni, Nag, Akash and BrahMos and unmanned vehicles like Nishant and Lakshya, but at the same time India still has a long way to go.

With anticipated growth of the economy to a significant level in the coming decade, India must begin to look at working proactively on developing next generation weapons instead of only upgrading the existing ones. In times ahead, India must work at developing directed energy weapons, hypersonic vehicles and missiles, unmanned aircraft, armed drones and supersonic cruise missiles. Technological revolution from quantum computing to Artificial Intelligence offers us the path to grow more as a military power. Having successfully advanced into space, India needs to work on developing anti-satellite weapons capable of targeting hostile satellites both in low earth and polar orbits.

To protect all these, India needs to develop a robust cyber security and ensure protection from growing instances of malicious cyber-attack.

Thus, if India has to call the shots at the global level, then irrespective of whether one has to prepare for attack or respond to attack, staying equipped with newer and better weapons in the emerging technology domain, cannot be wished away under any pretext.


A Major Step Forward

In a very well thought out move in January 2020, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) has decided to set up a New Emerging Strategic Technologies Division referred to as NEST. The NEST will help in coordinating security related matters with foreign countries in the field of 5G trial and artificial intelligence. Technology governance rule, working out architecture suited to Indian condition and security will be ensured through NEST. “Technology, connectivity and trade are at the heart of new contestations,” said the foreign minister S. Jaishankar while speaking at the Ramnath Goenka Memorial lecture few months ago. It is thus, beginning of a new phase of technology diplomacy utilising own home pool of talent.


Boots on Ground

The growing technologies will undoubtedly alter the speed and size of destruction in any conflict. However, boots on the ground can never be replaced. Irrespective of destruction or damage to any extent, through applying the latest technology wherewithal, boots on the ground will finally be required to physically take over the destroyed city eliminating every single pocket of resistance. The Indian Army trains for counter terrorist operation in cities involving breaching a house or building at best, but doesn’t actually train for capturing the city.

In light of the developing technology in defence and resultant manifold increase in destruction capability, final concluding operations in an urban environment will be unavoidable for attaining any decisive victory. The Indian Army, therefore, needs to establish an urban warfare school to prepare soldiers to fight and survive in dense urban terrain, be it Karachi or Lahore. Though fighting in densely populated urban areas will be the toughest and bloodiest form of combat, it will become the norm in times ahead for a Regional Power and not an exception. Sun Tzu had advised that ‘the worst policy is to attack cities’, but teaching in the Indian armed forces says that one should always prepare for the worst.


The Way Ahead

Military technology is the application of technology for use in warfare. Thus, technology being the backbone of any nation’s military power, ensures security of the nation. The future path of indigenous defence production must be laid out riding on the back of Emerging New Technologies and not restricted to only upgradation of existing technology.

India, therefore, has to seriously consider revisiting the structure and functioning of Defence Public Sector Undertakings, Ordnance Factory Board, R&D Centres, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) etc and examine the possibility of pruning these establishment and instead, utilise industries in the private sector for doing the same charter at a much lesser maintenance cost. Resultant larger capital outlay will help India to race along with the emerging technologies in defence.

(The writer is former army commander of central command, eastern command and south western command)


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