Despite the need for integral UAVs in the military, India is yet to see these being inducted in substantial numbers and employed in an integrated manner

by Major General BS Dhanoa (Retd)

The very recent conflict in Nagorno Karabakh has exposed the vulnerability of tracked weapons platforms and other unprotected ground targets to detection and engagement by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) using an array of sensors and precision weapons on board. Such capability, earlier limited to only advanced militaries, is increasing rapidly. Today a plethora of means is on hand to military commanders to remotely deliver ordnance on target by air-, ground- and sea-borne weapons platforms. Rapid advances in detection and engagement capabilities, coupled with remotely controlled aerial loitering platforms that are difficult to detect, have made the task of striking targets in inaccessible locations relatively easier, while counters to such attacks have been slow to develop. Similar, yet slower, advances in the use of unmanned ground vehicles/platforms (UGVs) by troops have been in the offing for some time now. To paraphrase Star Trek, ‘land is the final frontier’ for the deployment and effective use of unmanned platforms. This is so as there are several unique challenges that UGVs face, the most obvious being the operating environment’s complexity. Ground vehicles operate in a cluttered and unpredictable environment containing obstacles that are unknown at any detailed level before the mission.

Ongoing tensions with China have highlighted the technological asymmetry between the Indian Armed Forces and our northern adversary. It is glaring when it comes to the fielding of high-end drones (for intelligence and reconnaissance, or targeting), leveraging of space and cyber capabilities in a theatre of interest, and an extensive use of electronic warfare means to deny the electromagnetic spectrum to the other side while protecting friendly systems. If the military does not keep a laser-like focus on the likely changes that rapid advances in computers (artificial intelligence or AI, machine learning and the ability to quickly process a vast quantum of data), robotics, wireless battlefield networks and sensor-driven weapons can — and will — bring to the coming fight, they will probably be severely handicapped on any future battlefield. While the challenges of maintaining and sustaining legacy forces consume the minds of most force planners, technology and the rapid introduction of “game-changing” weapons systems wait for none. Thus, it is necessary to have a dedicated future force team of thinkers, scientists and planners, civil as well as military, who are given executive authority to crystal gaze, broadly outline the likely contours of conflict in the coming decades, and identify possibilities of developing and integrating new technology weapons that will ensure that the military is not disadvantaged in any potential scenario. It will require a whole of government effort to be abreast of China in this field.

How does a mostly industrial-age army, with an uneven distribution of modern and high-tech weapons systems, manage to predict its future needs and ensure their development, induction and integration? It is not an easy task. In 2016, the Indian Army set up the Army Design Bureau (ADB) to plan for the upgrade of present systems and enunciate future technological needs. A formal interface with industry and academia has been established to get the best Indian minds and research facilities involved in military technology development. Fundamental research by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and its affiliates is also closely interwoven into the process by the ADB. From this model, through a statement of future needs by different components of the army, the Indian Army hopes to project and develop future weapons systems, with unmanned platforms probably at the very top of the priority list.

A fair understanding of the complexity of developing and fielding UGVs is necessary to grasp the issues the Indian Army will face. The development of unmanned platforms is not new, yet it has taken the most brilliant minds in corporations like Tesla, Google and Microsoft to field prototypes of driverless cars, given the difficulty of safe autonomous navigation through the relatively benign yet continuously changing environment that cities present. Now imagine a military UGV operating in unknown complex terrain with different mission sets. Powerful algorithms will have to place the vehicle in a given threat posture in moments, sensing and overcoming any difficulty, while AI-driven engines will amalgamate the feeds of different surveillance sensors onboard, interpret the intelligence picture presented and activate its suite of weapons (an iteration of the OODA loop done many times over in a second). This may sound like science fiction, but it is the holy grail of convergence of disparate technologies — powerful AI engines, robotics, electro-optics, micro-sensors, 5G and satellite navigation — that have thus far only been tested in laboratories but are now being fielded in future force testbeds set up by most advanced militaries, including the US, Russia and China.

A glance at some of the ground platforms currently being field-tested may be instructive to understand their possible usage and determine an approach that India can adopt for eventual induction. Russia and the US are following proven methodologies for unmanned platforms — design, prototype, test, field. The US Army, under the Combat Capabilities Development Command, has the lead in this regard and the types of unmanned ground systems under development are legion; the most recent induction for use by the field army is the QinetiQ Inc. and Pratt Miller Defence Robotic Combat Vehicle-Light, a purpose-built hybrid electric unmanned ground combat vehicle. Russia has battle-tested the Uran-9 unmanned ground combat vehicle in Syria in 2018 and formally inducted it in its ground force in 2019. The Chinese have also been keeping pace with their development of unmanned ground systems and have introduced Norinco’s Sharp Claw UGV, which was first unveiled at the Air Show China 2014 exhibition in Zhuhai, into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in April 2020. Each of these three UGVs can perform a variety of tasks — from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to fire support and even logistics delivery or casualty evacuation — within their operating parameters.

In India, the DRDO has developed and fielded remotely operated vehicles for several military tasks, from explosive ordnance detection and disposal to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear reconnaissance, and these have been inducted in restricted numbers into the field army with specialist units. It is a small yet significant step to allow troops to gain experience with such platforms in their midst. However, any significant development of a remotely (or autonomously) operated weapons platform (micro, small, medium or heavy) has yet to see any progress outside the research environment, as is the case with the Muntra platform based on an ICV (BMP-II) or the wheeled (Honda CRV based) vehicle for use in urban terrain. UGV design and fielding of prototypes in India is almost entirely a defence research-led initiative, with some anticipation of eventual exports. The digital and support ecosystem existing in the army’s field formations will be hard put to fully exploit any worthwhile capabilities of UGVs until an upgrade of the wireless network and digital battlespace needed to make UGV operations worthwhile is not fielded.

Some of the major technical challenges that scientists face in meeting military requirements for unmanned platforms, especially ground-based ones, are:

Range of operating independently from a base is very limited, depending on terrain and the signal’s fidelity in an operating space
Successful and tactical negotiation of numerous obstacles, on the way and in a hostile area, are problematic for UGVs
Loss of positional awareness of unmanned platforms due to jamming or spoofing of satnav signals, which are essential for onboard or remotely guided navigation
Payloads that can be carried are limited to the vehicle configuration and its power plant type and size (from internal combustion engines to electrical motors and batteries)
Power generation noise onboard for heavy UGVs and a requirement of frequently recharging the batteries of small and medium-sized unmanned vehicles remains an issue
Identification of friend or foe is an ongoing hurdle for autonomous vehicles
Frequent stoppages and breakdowns in onboard electro-optic sensor suites and weapons render such platforms inoperable at crucial junctures

The induction of UGVs, especially autonomous ones, is unlikely without the Indian Army going through a painful developmental phase. Despite the need for integral UAVs (of all sizes and types) in the military, India is yet to see these being inducted in substantial numbers and employed in an integrated manner across the spectrum of threats. The mainstay for the army has been the Searcher and Heron series of UAVs purchased from Israel, purely for ISR, while indigenous development remains on the backburner. The much-touted Rustom series, a DRDO project for ISR and combat (though which weapons are to be integrated is unclear), have had their own birthing pangs for some time now. On the other hand, China, and its weapons’ largesse recipient Pakistan, have inducted and operated the CH series of reconnaissance and armed UAVs with growing confidence, with the PLA even integrating them into its war-fighting philosophy of the future.

The way ahead is not an easy one, but it needs to be mapped and enunciated now. India cannot be threatened by new ways of waging war, of which it is informed endlessly but is incapable of countering with a cogent technological and doctrinal response. There are enough indicators available that unmanned systems are going to play a crucial part on the future battlefield. The threat of drone swarms overwhelming a legacy system such as an integrated missile air defence network or even an aircraft carrier at sea can no longer be ignored. India’s armed forces need to do their own thinking and red teaming for such scenarios. They must give a coherent yet broad-based needs statement to the defence research establishment now, rather than have to force fit independent weapons and systems developed by the DRDO into their doctrine (which has mostly been the case so far).

In sum, the army must: look at the threats and needs of the future battlefield now, especially for unmanned systems; field an inter-agency and intra-government task force headed by a designated transformation czar; get their teams to deliberately prepare and follow up on a national and military needs paper for future systems; and integrate all the different strands of development (government and private) into a purposeful research and development project that has achievable milestones. India has the capacity, intellect, and research facilities within and outside of government to develop and field such systems faster than ever before. It should not field stand-alone systems in a piecemeal fashion if the desire is to address the forces’ needs for unmanned systems in a holistic manner. If the nation’s defence ecosystem needs a stimulus to hasten development, it should be intellectually driven from within and not be forced upon it because of an external threat.