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Published on: March 22, 2021, 6:05 a.m.
India readies for future warfare
  • DRDO’s Pinaka multi-barrel rocket launcher

By Sarosh Bana. Executive Editor, Business India

It was the ground-breaking missiles of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century warrior-king of Mysore, that had helped his and his father Hyder Ali’s army to stall the march of the British East India Company into southern India in the 1780s and 1790s.

The technology-infatuated ‘Tiger of Mysore’ had drawn on India’s age-old tradition of treating ferrous metals to create the precursor of the modern rocket that was more effective than the firecracker-like projectiles then used by the Chinese. Tipu devised his iron-cased incendiaries that he hoisted on bamboo poles, and mounted on ramps to maximise accuracy and range. The British were inspired enough to build on that technology in developing the Congreve artillery rocket in 1805 that helped advance European rocketry, and which they effectively used in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.

It was perhaps this part of Indian history that prompted Defence minister Rajnath Singh to remark, “When nations go to war, the nation with better technology will win.” And perhaps taking cue, the country’s defence planners have begun their next generation modernisation in earnest in a quest to be future-ready.

Transforming geopolitics is driving preparations the world over for future wars that will be waged less with the bullet than with so-called “disruptive technologies” like Cyberwarfare, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cloud Computing, Quantum Computing, Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR), Robotics, Big Data Analytics, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), or drones, Small Satellite, or Smallsat, 5G/6G Telecommunications, Information Acquisition, 3D Printing, Nanomaterials, and human augmentation devices.

In its first initiative to delve into such complex themes, the Indian Army last August conducted a two-day virtual programme titled “Impact of Disruptive Technologies on Our Fighting Philosophy in Future Conflicts” at the Army War College in Mhow. Military experts, technocrats and academicians participated in the programme that analysed the impact of disruptive technologies on future warfare. Army Chief, General M.M. Naravane, urged India’s armed forces to focus on the available disruptive technologies that have dual-use and were being driven by commercial entities and innovations.

Abhishek Verma, who is Partner and Lead for Aerospace & Defence at KPMG Advisory Services, India, believes that alongside the private sector being marshalled into indigenous defence production, it will be the Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) anchored by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) that have been, and will be, instrumental in developing some of the cutting-edge technologies to pave the way for future warfare for India.

The government has been elated enough into believing that India has become a credible arms vendor as its defence exports have grown from Rs2,000 crore to Rs9,000 crore over 2015-2020. This is a pittance really, completely overshadowed by arms imports exceeding $100 billion over the past one decade alone. India has consistently been a leading arms importer, and its Defence budget for this year allocates Rs1,33,895 crore of the overall Rs4,78,195.62 crore for weapons procurement, driven by the military standoff with China. In fact, since the Chinese incursion in May 2020, the government has made almost $3 billion worth of out-of-budget emergency defence procurements.

India has thus fostered an entrenched dependence of its military on foreign munitions. This is because defence procurements in the Indian context are largely a political decision rather than one premised on military and security considerations. This has had a deep impact on force levels and, by extension, on national defences.

There is now a rethink to balance this over-reliance on overseas technologies with self-reliance by investing in technologies for wars that are yet to be fought. “We sanctioned 138 proposals worth over $37 billion for domestic manufacturing between 2016 and 2019,” the Defence minister points out.

Arms race is now future technology race

The Indian government finds itself in what is spiralling from an arms race to a future technology race. For one, to make the Indian armed forces future ready, it has removed the budgetary constraints for “capability development and meeting other requirements”. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has besides opened up the defence sector to private industry, both Indian and global, by increasing the Foreign Direct Investment) (FDI) limit from 49 to 74 per cent, a step it hopes will welcome substantial private participation to augment prevailing domestic defence manufacturing capabilities.

As a country facing hostility from both China and Pakistan, India is hard-pressed to prepare for a two-front war. Its military is laying increasing emphasis on digital technologies that underpin the rationale for Network-Centric Warfare (NCW), as also on available disruptive technologies that have dual-use and can be brought under an overarching national mission through the armed forces modernisation strategy.

“Indigenisation and integration are the need of the hour,” a senior official of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) tells Business India. Set up in 2001 as a Point organisation for jointmanship, IDS integrates policy, doctrine, warfighting and procurement. The official highlights existing internal frameworks within the forces that articulate robust doctrinal principles with the vision to embark on futuristic technology and modernisation plans poised to cater to future wars. “It is imperative to strengthen R&D for our defence industry, while bridging technology and capability gaps with suitable import substitutes,” he maintains. “Numerous projects are being undertaken by private industry and the 52 laboratories of the DRDO that are working in seven broad domains, and also under the PPP [Public-Private Partnership] and strategic partnership models.”

Also emerging in importance are multi- or cross-domain operations that comprise ‘centaur’ teams, where man binds with machine to optimise mutual performance. Dubbed centaurs after the mythical half-man-half-horse creature, these human-machine teams will harness AI for military applications that will transform decision-making in the battlefield.

The Indian armed forces’ demand for just such a ‘Connected Soldier’ may be fulfilled by the PPP between state-owned Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Hyderabad’s Grene Robotics, a niche private sector player in AI and Robotics. The two entities are jointly developing an autonomous AI-based man-portable-air-defence (MANPAD) Data Link system. MANPAD is a portable surface-to-air missile (SAM).

“The AMDL addresses existing operational limitations in forward areas, enabling the Command Centre to give real time firing commands to the soldier, leveraging sensor-to-sight capabilities using AR/VR,” explains Grene Robotics Director Gopi Krishna Reddy.

Verma maintains that DPSUs like BEL and the DRDO are spearheading developmental work for key technologies that will be the backbone of future warfare. BEL and DRDO’s Centre for AI and Robotics (CAIR) are developing the Artillery Combat, Command and Control System, while BEL, another DPSU, Electronics Corp. of India Ltd (ECIL), and Tata Group company CMC Ltd were setting up the Tactical Command, Control, Communications and Information (TAC-C3I) system for field formations, as well as ground-based Electronic Warfare projects.

CAIR is using AI for robotics in developing security solutions and a range of C4I2SR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) systems. The MoD has predicated a cyber warfare infrastructure on the creation of a C4I2SR backbone. The Indian Army is advancing its C4I2SR capabilities, while being mindful of accomplishing interoperability amongst the three services as future operations will necessarily be joint. Interoperability is a major objective of the newly created Department of Military Affairs that has the mandate to form theatre commands.

Maintaining that to attain self-reliance, India will need to develop a robust defence electronics manufacturing ecosystem, Verma feels that while the country has developed the capabilities for designing and manufacturing electronics systems, sub-systems and chips, there have been challenges in setting up semiconductor wafer fabrication units. “Only one factory, the Semi Conductor Lab in Chandigarh set up under the Department of Space, makes semiconductor wafers in India,” he notes. “This facility produces eight-inch wafers based on the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) process 180 nanometre lithography.”

Silicon and Gallium Nitride (GaN) based semiconductors have enormous applications in defence, as in radars, power systems, electric vehicles, etc. and the demand for GaN semiconductors is expected to surge on account of their properties and cost effectiveness. India too is expected to be their heavy user for its power electronics segment. Verma sees a significant opportunity existing in the country in the field of semiconductor foundry technology, especially for GaN chips. “While India has found early success in R&D of GaN based semiconductors, British companies have already had commercial breakthroughs in GaN foundry technology,” he remarks.

In pursuit of high-tech programmes

The MoD’s Defence Procurement Procedure outlines concepts like the integration of AI with platforms and systems, and the use of indigenous high-end material. Its Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap 2018 (TPCR- 2018) provides industry an overview of equipment envisaged for induction into India’s armed forces up to the late 2020s. The TPCR, which follows the first edition of 2013, aims at driving technology development processes that industry may pursue, as also guide in planning or initiating technology development, partnerships and production arrangements. The Roadmap emphasises that in pursuing any development or collaboration, Indian industry, large as well as Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), should heed the government’s ‘Make in India’ commitment.

The MoD’s Department of Defence Production constituted in 2018 a Task Force, headed by Tata Sons Chairman N. Chandrasekaran, to offer suggestions on ‘Strategic Implementation of AI for National Security and Defence’. The Task Force called for making India a significant power of AI in defence, specifically in the areas of air, naval and land systems, and cyber, nuclear and biological warfare. It recommended policy and institutional interventions for regulating and encouraging robust AI-based technologies for the country’s defence sector.

This led to the constitution of the high-level Defence AI Council that was tasked to provide strategic direction towards adoption of AI in defence, and guidance for developing partnerships between government and private industry, including start-ups.

Steps towards future warfare appear in the form of hypersonic weapons, and Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) that can potentially end future wars before they begin. India joined the race for hypersonic weapons with its DRDO-developed Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle that has a demonstrated speed of Mach 6. As regards DEWs, DRDO has two dedicated centres, namely, Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences and Laser Science & Technology Centre. Having recently conducted a successful test of a laser system mounted on a truck, DRDO is now planning to create a more powerful laser with a longer range. The private sector Kalyani Group too is looking to develop or build DEWs.

The Kalyani Group and DRDO entities are also working separately towards developing aero engines for UAV applications. A 55 hp ‘Rotary Engine’ designed and developed by DRDO’s Vehicles Research Development Establishment for UAVs achieved a 3.72 km altitude against a requirement for 3.6 km.

The DRDO is additionally developing the Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS – BH 201), a medium altitude long endurance UAV Tactical Airborne Platform that is in similar class as the Israel Aerospace Industry's Heron. With an operating altitude of 30,000 ft, endurance of 24 hours with synthetic aperture radar and electro-optical payloads, and a range of 250 km, its mission requirements are to provide continuous wide area coverage and yet be able to identify small targets.

UCAVs are projected to play a key role in India’s future warfare, replacing much of the operations carried out at present by manned aircraft. But despite several development programmes of UAVs under DRDO, India depends largely on imports, its current fleet of drones used essentially for reconnaissance and surveillance. India’s first UAV was an Israeli Searcher Mk-1 acquired by the Indian Army in 1996. According to SIPRI, the country tops the list of global UAV importers, as it has yet to make any credible progress with its indigenous drones.

The DRDO, along with IIT Kanpur, is working on a UCAV platform, Ghatak, but the exact development status of the platform is not known. The UCAVs India has in its arsenal are the Harpy and Harop self-destructing unmanned systems (loitering munitions) from IAI. India is also purchasing 12 MQ9 Reapers from San Diego-based General Atomics. These unarmed drones, variants of the armed Predator drones, will be deployed on long-range intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance missions over the Indian Ocean Region.

The tri-services have revived the long pending Project Cheetah, under which 90 IAI Heron drones are being converted to armed versions. These reports coincide with announcement of a strategic partnership between DPSU Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), private sector Dynamatic Technologies Ltd and IAI to jointly manufacture the Heron Mk-2 drones in India. While the MoU concerns unarmed Heron Mark IIs, they can reportedly be converted into armed UAVs if the armed forces so desire. The MoU will lead to the manufacture of the second range of Israeli UAVs in India, besides the JV between Adani Defence & Aerospace and Elbit Systems for making the unarmed Hermes 900 and 450 classes of drones for export.

Among the missile systems is DPSU Bharat Dynamics Ltd’s (BDL’s) Amogha-III, the third generation Imaging Infra-Red (IIR)-seeker based Anti-Tank Guided Missile, and the two-stage Brahmos supersonic cruise missile jointly developed with Russia and indigenously produced for all three services. In 2019, the IAF successfully test fired the aerial version of the missile from a Su-30MKI fighter, with the Navy following with successful test-firing of a surface-to-surface version of the missile from a destroyer. The range of the land attack version has been extended to 400 km from the original 290 km, the missiles having been deployed along the de facto border with China in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Largest domestic defence deal 

In the largest ever domestic defence deal, the government recently awarded HAL a Rs48,000 crore contract for 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk-1. HAL is confident of producing 16 of its single-engine fourth generation multi-role jetfighters every year once its new plant is set up and it will be able to hike indigenous content to 65 per cent post the 20th unit.

HAL and Tejas designer, DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), believe that the core technology that went into the LCA - which was sanctioned way back in 1983 as replacement for the IAF’s Soviet-origin MiG-21 fleet - will catalyse follow-on jetfighter projects. Timelines will consequently be compressed, with three new combat aircraft expected to be flying within the next decade. The first, to be produced by end-2023, will be an upgraded LCA, the Mk-2, and will replace the Mirage 2000s that joined the IAF in 1985 after Pakistan bought the F-16 Fighting Falcons, originally made by General Dynamics.

The LCA Mk-2 will be followed by the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), designed and developed by HAL and ADA. Assigned an internal timeline to fly by 2028, the stealth AMCA is designed to achieve low radar cross-section, and a range of up to 3,000 km in different modes. The first two IAF squadrons of these fighters will necessarily be powered by an imported engine, until an indigenous one, to be fabricated by DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment, can be readied in time to power the remaining five squadrons. It was largely the lack of an indigenous fighter jet engine that inordinately delayed the LCA’s development from the drawing board to the manufacture stage. Also on the cards is a sixth generation AMCA.

While military aircraft have hitherto been the monopoly of HAL, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd will be India’s first private entity to move into this field. The Tata Group company, which showcased its capabilities in high-altitude twin-engine aircraft at the recent Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru, has acquired IPR (intellectual property rights) from a German-origin platform, likely the Grob G180 SPn. Grob Aerospace had discontinued production of its low-wing composite corporate jet when it filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Tata’s initiative will help revive the programme, with the aircraft to be used for border surveillance and allied functions.

To conclude, there is much R&D happening to equip India with indigenous future warfare technologies, but execution will have to be monitored on a mission mode. It would also have to be backed with the development of a robust operating model for DRDO, along with continuous support that needs to be provided to private enterprise that has sunk considerable capital into defence manufacturing.

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