‘When nations go to war, the nation with better technology will win,’ India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in 2019, and perhaps taking that cue, the country’s defence planners are embarking on their next-generation modernisation program in a quest to be future-ready.

The transforming geopolitical landscape is driving preparations the world over for future wars that will be waged less with the bullet than with cyber technology, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, quantum computing, augmented and virtual reality, robotics, big-data analytics, unmanned drones, small-satellite constellations for 5G and 6G telecommunications, information acquisition, 3D printing, nanomaterials and human augmentation devices.

Multi-domain, or cross-domain, operations will comprise ‘centaur’ teams, where human will bind with machines to optimise the performance of both. These human–machine teams will harness AI for military applications that will transform decision-making on the battlefield.

The Indian Armed Forces’ demand for just such a ‘connected’ soldier may be met by a public–private partnership under the government’s defence public sector undertakings (DPSU) program between Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and Hyderabad’s Grene Robotics, a niche private-sector player in AI and robotics, which are jointly developing an advanced man-portable surface-to-air missile.

A key to its effectiveness is an ‘autonomous MANPAD data link’ which allows commanders to give real-time firing orders to a soldier in a forward area using augmented reality and virtual reality robotics, says Grene Robotics director Gopi Krishna Reddy.

Abhishek Verma, partner and lead for aerospace and defence infrastructure at KPMG India, believes that while the private sector is being marshalled for indigenous defence production, DPSUs anchored by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will be instrumental in developing cutting-edge technologies for the Indian Armed Forces through its 52 laboratories.

India has long been a leading arms importer and has increased its purchases since the clashes on the border with China erupted last year.

There’s now a push to balance this overreliance on overseas technologies by investing in technologies developed at home. To make the armed forces future-ready, the Indian government has removed budgetary constraints for capability development and other requirements. The Ministry of Defence has also opened up the defence sector to private enterprise, both Indian and global, by raising the foreign direct investment limit from 49% to 74%.

Top-level research and development is underway to equip India with indigenous future warfare technologies, and much of that vital work has been carried out by private-sector companies, which have sunk considerable capital into defence manufacturing.

Facing hostility from both China and Pakistan, India is feeling pressured to prepare for a two-front war. The military hierarchy is putting increasing emphasis on digital technologies to underpin network-centric warfare and on disruptive technologies.

Officials from India’s Integrated Defence Staff say it’s imperative to strengthen R&D while bridging technology and capability gaps with local equipment that can replace imports. The organisation integrates policy, doctrine, warfighting and procurement.

The use of AI is largely driven by DRDO’s Centre for AI and Robotics (CAIR), whose mission is to develop security solutions and a range of C4I2SR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, information, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems.

The Indian Army is focusing on bettering its C4I2SR capabilities while being mindful of the need for interoperability among the three services. As future operations will necessarily be joint, interoperability is a major objective of the newly created Department of Military Affairs that will form theatre commands.

BEL and CAIR are developing an artillery combat, command and control system, while BEL, the Electronics Corporation of India and the Tata Group’s CMC are setting up a tactical command, control, communications and information system for field formations and ground-based electronic warfare projects.

The MoD recently ordered from BEL four-channel multi-mode and multi-band shipborne radio equipment, known as a software-defined radio tactical system, developed in partnership with DRDO’s Defence Electronics Applications Laboratory. The system supports the simultaneous operation of all very high and ultra-high frequency and lower band channels.

Other programs nearing development are the Swathi mobile artillery-locating phased array radar, the naval airfield integrated security system, BEL’s battlefield surveillance system for high-altitude operations and the DRDO-designed USHUS-2 integrated submarine sonar system.

There’s also the DRDO-designed Rohini 3D central acquisition radar for use with India’s Akash surface-to-air missile that is capable of tracking 150 targets, the Maareech homing system for India’s Varunastra heavy-weight torpedo, the Monopulse secondary surveillance radar, and DRDO’s ship-to-shore communication system. The Mahindra Defence Systems and Telephonics Corporation joint venture manufactures the RDR series of airborne weather radars.

It’s a major effort to prepare the nation for an increasingly uncertain strategic environment.