Artificial Intelligence. Image: iStock
Major tech companies and government agencies continue to enhance their computational power. Image: iStock

In 2017, China called for the nation to become “the world’s primary artificial-intelligence innovation center” by 2030, by which time, it forecast, the country’s AI industry could be worth US$150 billion. Hence China is investing heavily in all aspects of information technology, from quantum computing to chip design.

Multiple initiatives have also been launched, including China building the $2.1 billion AI Technology Park in Beijing’s western suburbs. Compare this with America’s total spending on unclassified AI programs in 2016 of $1.2 billion.

Though specifics of China’s AI-powered arms remain secret, they include autonomous tanks and other land vehicles, submarines and surface warships, as well as aircraft including bombers, fighters and drones. China has already demonstrated an unmanned tank and a swarm of drone aircraft.

India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) has developed multiple robots with varied applications such as Internet  traffic analysis, but compared with developments in China combining robotics and AI, India’s asymmetric disadvantage is huge.

In February, India appointed an AI Task Force to examine peaceful and commercial use of AI and visualize developing future transformative weaponry, and to examine AI use to monitor non-state actors and developing intelligent robotic systems for military use. The task force was to study AI in leading foreign militaries and recommend specific applications for India’s armed forces, the overall aim being to make India a significant AI power in defense, specifically in the fields of aviation, land systems, and naval, cyber, nuclear and biological warfare.

In May, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government’s seriousness on developing AI applications for defense forces and said this could be effective in aerial, land-based and naval platforms for multiple tasks including guarding borders, cyber, securing outer space, and monitoring chemical and nuclear environment.

The AI Task Force submitted its final report to government in July, recommending policy and institutional interventions that are required to regulate and encourage robust AI-based technologies for the defense sector, and, considering that most AI work is happening in the private sector, work with startups and the commercial industry to field AI applications in defense. This indicates that India is still at the broad policy framework stage and there are miles, or rather years, to cover.

India must also confront two realities: one, its Ministry of Defense lacks military professionals and the bureaucrats are apathetic even to “Make in India,” as admitted by Minister of State for Defense Subhash Bhamre; two, despite recommendations to use startups and private sector, the DRDO enters through the back door and causes delays, going by the history of every project.

The Indian Army has been seeking capacity building for network-centric warfare for decades. The army launched its Tactical Command, Control, Communications and Information (Tac C3I) system, which is the mainstay and fulcrum of network-centric warfare, which in turn will be vital for optimizing AI platforms. Unfortunately, little progress has been made on the operational information systems of the Tac C3I because of multiple factors including a lack of understanding of their importance. The present government has excelled in reducing defense budgetary allocations to levels seen in 1962, when India suffered reverses in war with China.

The above resulted in the army announcing that it would be forced to shut down some 25 projects, adversely affecting modernization. An important component of the Tac C3I, the Battlefield Management System, was recently foreclosed after the army had pursued it for 13 years. This despite the fact that systems provided by various companies in response to requests for proposals were easily handled by infantry soldiers way back in 2009, and subsequently private industry had invested heavily in producing prototypes.

The foreclosure was on account of a paucity of funds, but without a thought to how a phased induction could be implemented. Ironically, other components of the Tac C3I are also either crawling or nearing rigor mortis. In fact the only operational information system fielded to date is the Artillery Command Control and Communication System.

Technology provides numerous options to build automated Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Information and Intelligence (C4I2) systems for effective leadership on the modern battlefield. Success in combat depends greatly upon fused, tailored intelligence, which is communicated securely and rapidly. Speed is a crucial component.

The critical elements of sensor and engagement grids are hosted by a high-quality information back plane. These are supported by value-adding command and control processes, many of which need to be automated to achieve speed. This, in essence, personifies the essential characteristics of a C4I2 system. How is the Indian Army going to optimize the AI platforms in the absence of operational-information-system and C4I2 architecture is anybody’s guess – it amounts to placing the cart before the horse and waiting for the horse to be reborn.

Speaking about soldiers using smartphones, Indian Army Chief Bipin Rawat recently stated, “Our adversary will use social media for psychological warfare and deception, we must leverage it to our advantage. In modern-day warfare, info warfare is important and within it, we’ve started talking about AI. If we have to leverage AI to our advantage we must engage through social media, as a lot of what we wish to gain as part of AI will come via social media.”

The mismatch between “social media” and “AI” was obvious, but he might have said so out of frustration; looking at how the implementation of  operational information system in the army has been stymied in recent years. The bottom line is that policymakers need to look at AI for defense forces much more systematically and with a speedy rollout plan.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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