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The New Era of Airborne Disruptive Technologies

Future wars will be a ‘Non Contact War (NCW)’ involving minimum manpower or physical contact of Armed Forces and to this aspect development of ‘Airborne Based Disruptive Technologies’ is fast gaining importance. The Author examines where the IAF stands in this regards...

Ever since its inception technology has impacted military conflicts or warfare. Though, it is a known fact that technology alone is not capable of winning any warfare but undeniably it does appear that technology superiority has been the major deciding factor in any warfare or military conflict since ages. Armed Forces that are better equipped with higher technologies have always and will continue to have an upper hand. Further, technology also has a great deterrent value, hence, even at times can help in averting wars with least damage and costs.

The recent years have witnessed remarkable changes in the global technology environment as a result of acceleration in both the pace of technological advancement as well as the rate of diffusion leading to the development and emergence of military ‘disruptive technologies’ such as Information Warfare (IW), Cloud Computing, Cyber Security, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, New Undersea Systems, Unmanned Ground Vehicles, deadly UAVs and Blockchain to name a few. These being more precise and lethal are thus expected to further revolutionize the warfare scenario which will be dominated by information technology. Furthermore, as the speed of technological development accelerates it will revolutionise warfare and competitive edge will rule any kind of warfare. It is believed that the timely and right application of such technologies have even greater potential than nuclear weapons to completely change the balance of power.

Moreover, it needs to be highlighted over here that the future wars will be a ‘Non Contact War (NCW)’ which will involve minimum manpower or physical contact of Forces and to this aspect development of ‘Airborne Based Disruptive Technologies’ is fast gaining importance. These technologies basically include Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Autonomous Unmanned System, Hypersonic, Directed Energy Weapon and Cyber Capabilities to name a few. Countries such as US, France, Britain, China and Russia are already pursuing military innovations determined by these technological advancements and have also started integrating them into their aerial weapons and military aviation products and systems.

The Airborne Based Disruptive Technologies basically include Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Autonomous Unmanned System, Hypersonic, Directed Energy Weapon and Cyber Capabilities to name a few.

Airborne Based Disruptive Technologies in the Indian Air Force Context

India faces extrinsic contingencies from its hostile neighbourhood that range from conventional, nuclear to sub-conventional spectrum of conflict as well as intrinsic threats and challenges owing to growing terrorism. Further, as mentioned above we have reached the era of Non Contact Warfare and thus development of airborne based disruptive technologies has become imperative for India. The India Air Force (IAF) though has ventured into the field of airborne based disruptive technologies to modernise its forces which range from drone swarms, robotics, directed energy weapons to artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities, cloud computing and big data analysis. However, it still has a long way to go as most of these technologies are under development as of now.

Let us examines some of the airborne based disruptive technologies which have emerged over the recent years and the capability and development of these technologies with regards to the Indian Air Force.

First in the list is the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics which is definitely theleading and most popular disruptive technologies of the current era that has and will continue to have major impact on military aviation in the coming years. The future war systems are likely to be dominated by unmanned systems and to this extent it is gradually becoming an essential part of the rotary and fixed wing unmanned systems as it can provide multiple options for military applications for a strategic, operational and tactical level planning in many of the functions such as Intelligent and autonomous unmanned systems, data analysis, information processing and intelligence analysis, simulation, and training and Defence, offense, and command information warfare etc and thus has the power to redefine air power strategy. Rather, a number of Air Forces of United States, Russia, China, France, and Japan have already investing millions in the development of AI enabled aerial platforms. Some of the Countries are also inducting such platforms and technologies in their inventories as force multipliers.

As for the Indian Air Force, it has also taken some steps in the field of AI enabled platforms and drones. On the indigenous front, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is working on the Ghatak, a large combat UAV, or UCAV, with stealth technology. Meanwhile, in the beginning of this year DPSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has signed a deal with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed a deal to manufacture the advanced armed Heron TP drones.

Further, IAF has already placed orders for 54 Israeli HAROP attack drones. These will supplement the existing inventory of 110 such drones which are now designated as P-4. These are equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over high-value military targets such as surveillance bases and radar stations before exploding them. Also in pipeline is a joint small, air-launched UAV project of India with US Air Force Research Laboratory and India’s Defence Research and Development Organization is being explored.

However, this is just a beginning as the AI penetration into the Indian Air Force is still miniscule especially considering the advancements made by certain other countries. For example, Russia is very aggressively pushing AI in aerial based platforms and has undertaken development of an autonomous drone which will be able to take off, accomplish its mission and land without human interference though weapons use will, for the time being will require human approval. Same is the case with China which has a robust focus on AI based airborne disruptive technologies and is developing next generation autonomous vehicles (drones). As for US, it has commenced an Air Combat Evolution (ACE) program that aims to boost war fighter trust in autonomous combat technology by using human-machine combined dog fighting as its preliminary challenge scenario.

Robotics in aerial warfare is another disruptive technology that is finding its way into the Air Forces of many countries. For ex. recently the US Air Force deployed the newly developed four-legged "robot dogs" to defend its perimeters. Undeniably, replacing the convention equipment by robots that are undoubtebly smart and intelligent machines which learn by observation, trial and error not only enhances operational efficiency but are also providing cost effective alternative.

The IAF is also moving ahead in this domain and will soon be procuring robots known as Unexploded Ordnance Handling Robot (UXOR) that can defuse bombs weighing up to 1000 kgs that have not exploded. Indigenously designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), these robots are monitored from a mobile centre and remove the need for humans to defuse bombs, making them an important tool in times to come. These robots are controlled remotely from a distance of 2 km. The operator can locate and defuse the explosive by using high pressure water jets. Again as with the case with AI, the IAF has a long way to go with researching and developing such robotic technologies which definitely will be of great help when inducted in transforming the future of aerial warfare as it will simplify the process of using manpower.

Noteworthy, as per estimations, the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Industry in India in military domain is currently estimated to be $200-250 Million annually in revenues.

Further, with regards to Cyber Capability, the DRDO lab CAIR has developed Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA) which can monitor internet traffic. It can analyse voice traffic passing through software such as Skype, Google Talk and intercept messages with key words attack, bomb, blast, kill and other words in real time. These would be translated to suitable applications for the Indian Air Force.

Drone Swarm Technology is another area which is catching up fast amongst militaries worldwide and has the potential to revolutionize the dynamics of aerial warfare. A swarm/fleet of Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is a set of aerial robots that work collectively and autonomously make decisions to realize a specific goal based on shared information. These are capable enough of working together to overpower any kind of adversaries Noteworthy, every UAV/Drone in a swarm is determined by a definite number of rotors and has the capability to Vertically Hover, Take-Off and Land (VTOL). As on now countries like US, China, Russia and Britain are leading the race in developing this particular technology. While, Britain is expected to induct "swarm squadrons" in next 2-3 years; the US on the other hand has also been testing interconnected, co-operative drones known as Gremlins. These basically are micro-drones which are of the size and shape of missiles and designed in such a manner to be dropped from aircrafts and carry out reconnaissance purpose in small or large areas.

As for India, it has taken commendable steps in this direction to arm IAF with this technology. DPSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) along with a private sector start-up company NewSpace Research and Technologies is developing a swarm drone system known as the ‘Air-Launched Flexible Asset (ALFA-S)’ designed to be launched from fighter aircraft as well as transport aircrafts. It is expected that the ALFA-S prototype is most likely to be ready in two years. It has also commenced with the process of developing a stealthy Artificial Intelligence enabled munition-loaded semi-autonomous robot known as ‘Wingman’ which would function in a fleet teaming with a fighter jet, providing it with necessary protection and surveillance, thus safeguarding the operator while also broadening the extent of cross-border tasks.

Countering Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)/Drone System Technology is yet one more emerging airborne based disruptive technology which is slowly gaining momentum keeping in mind the increasing usage and threat arising from UAVs/Drones by Air Forces world over. A complete and effective Counter UAV system must be capable of timely identifying/detecting, tracking as well as intercepting/neutralizing these risks arising from UAV/Drone usage. Rather, in coming years the need to alleviate the risks of UAVs will call out for increasing adoption of 'Counter UAV/Drones technology' by countries globally. Countries like US, China, Europe, Germany, France, Italy and Russia are already leading the race in developing of this technology. Noteworthy, as the requirement of UAVs grows up, concerns would also grow around the potential security threats leading to the requirement of (induction and manufacturing) of counter-drone technologies.

India has just embarked its journey with regards to these airborne technologies which are still very nascent and there is a long way to go in manufacturing them indigenously.

In the Indian context, the country has just embarked its journey with experimenting of Counter UAV/Drone technologies for the Indian Air Force, however, these technologies are still very nascent and there is a long way to go in manufacturing them indigenously. In 2018 the Government invited a number of local and foreign players to exhibit their technologies in this vital area so that appropriate mechanisms can be put in place to counter the threat of rogue drones. IAF along with a number of Government agencies such as Ministry of Civil Aviation, Pawan Hans Limited, CISF, NSG, DRDO etc. participated in the process along with local and foreign firms to decide on the technology best suited under Indian conditions. As of now, the DRDO labs and Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D) are already taking up Counter UAV related R&D and technology aggregation projects. Also to be noted that DPSU Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) has developed a Drone Guard System (DGS) which can detect, track and neutralise the intruding drones. The System utilises RF spectrum to detect the drone and EO-IR sensor to track the drone continuously.

As of now, the Indian market for these Counter UAV systems is somewhere around $10-12 Million (Rs 65-75 Crores). However, there would be a growing requirement for Counter UAV system owing to the growing demand of UAVs seen with the IAF.

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) are visualised as a revolutionary technology with the world gradually pursuing them. These are basically ranged weapon that damages its target with highly focused energy, including millimetre waves, lasers, microwaves, electromagnetic pulses and particle beams. Potential applications of this technology include weapons that target personnel, missiles, vehicles, and optical devices. However, Directed Energy Weapons are still at the experimental stage and as of now only US, Russia, China, UK and India are known to be developing these. As for China, it is not only developing laser weapons but also working on countermeasures to elude them.

India has undertaken indigenous development of air based Directed Energy Weapons for the Indian Air Force but it is at a nascent stage and a lot of experiments are being conducted. The Indian R&D entity DRDO has been working in this area for the last 3-4 years to develop 10-kW and 20-kW weapons for the Air Force.

Bottom-Line

The new and emerging trend of airborne based disruptive technologies in most likelihood will be the most important determinants of defensive and offensive capabilities for aerial warfare in future and thus rightly regarded as a game changer in modern day war-fighting. Moreover, these technologies are the future and would become even more critical and also complex in nature in years to come with their potential spin-offs or emergence of more such niche technologies. Keeping this in mind the IAF has started taking steps towards developing and equipping itself with these technologies. However, most of these disruptive technologies are under development or lagging behind as compared to the other current developed technologies of the same genre by some of the other countries. The next generation warfare will be more and more technology driven, automated and robotised and so IAF needs to be prepared. Thus, there is an urgent need in investing heavily in these technologies which will indeed help the IAF in gaining the technological edge. For this, the Government should come ahead and support development of such disruptive innovative technologies and should provide the necessary policy framework and incentives, including direct funding to select companies, start-ups and research institutions.

Also, the Government through consultation with the Indian Air Force and all the other stakeholders should identify what all new emerging disruptive aerial based technologies can be developed and inducted in future. Also, these should be particularly need-based and of course most importantly affordable. For this, it is essential to understand the needs of Indian Air Force and exactly what disruptive technologies they want. Accordingly, it is also important to effectively understand and manage such new technologies by identifying their strategic and tactical efficacy/utility in existing defence spectrum, the possible contributions and benefaction they could make towards improvising overall competence of the IAF. Furthermore, India should access such disruptive technologies available with all centre of excellence available in India like DRSO, CSIR, BARC, ISRO and private sector and see how these can be collectively used to develop such technologies for Armed Forces including of Indian Air Force.

If India really wants to become a technology leader then the Government should put impetus on clearly laying down the roadmap for current and futuristic airborne based technologies to be acquired by the Indian Air Force coupled with providing requisite funding while also working in a fast paced manner towards those technologies; or else, it will merely remain as a technology follower.

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