Indian Navy on the cusp of technological transformation - Hindustan Times
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Indian Navy on the cusp of technological transformation

ByHindustan Times
Dec 08, 2022 05:26 PM IST

The article has been authored by Vijay Sakhuja, a maritime security analyst.

Every year on December 4, the Indian Navy celebrates Navy Day to commemorate Operation Trident under which the missile boats of the ‘25 Killer Squadron’ attacked Karachi harbour in Pakistan. The exploits on the night of December 4/5, 1971 by the small missile boats of Soviet origin designed for coastal defence, and naval aircraft Sea Hawks and Alize bombing Cox's Bazaar, Khulna and Chittagong in East Pakistan are recorded in the annals of India's naval history in letters of gold. Nearly two weeks into the war, on December 16, 1971 as many as 100 Pakistani naval officers and about 1,300 sailors surrendered in East Pakistan. At the time of the surrender, admiral Mohammed Sharif, the naval officer commanding East Pakistan fleet approached vice-admiral N Krishnan, the commanding-in-chief of the Eastern Naval Command and said “Your Navy fought magnificently and had us cornered everywhere.”

Mumbai, Dec 05 (ANI): An Operational Demonstration is being showcased by the Indian Navy during a Beating Retreat and Tattoo Ceremony as part of Navy Day celebrations at Gateway of India, in Mumbai on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(Deepak Salvi) PREMIUM
Mumbai, Dec 05 (ANI): An Operational Demonstration is being showcased by the Indian Navy during a Beating Retreat and Tattoo Ceremony as part of Navy Day celebrations at Gateway of India, in Mumbai on Sunday. (ANI Photo)(Deepak Salvi)

Since the 1971 war, the Indian Navy has undergone major modernisation and today boasts of 130 warships and 230 aircraft. It is now on the cusp of a major transformation and fervently exploring transformative weaponry through Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT). The focus is on 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Big Data, Quantum Communications and Additive Manufacturing, which are exponential in nature and are causing massive naval disruptions among the world’s major navies.

While the above developments are noteworthy and the Indian Navy remains combat ready, it must contend with the Chinese navy which has made inroads into the Indian Ocean and has set up a major naval base at Djibouti. The United States (US) department of defence annual report on China submitted last month to the US Congress informs that the Chinese logistic support infrastructure at Djibouti is set to expand and the Chinese navy would be capable of projecting power in the Indian Ocean. In particular, naval facilities are significant and capable of berthing aircraft carriers, submarines and large ships.

The Chinese navy is also transforming and is all set to harness the potential of 4IR technologies to emerge as a highly sophisticated and capable force. Its inventory consists of a variety of unmanned surface vessel, drones, UAVs, and robots capable of operating autonomously. The Chinese naval strategists have explicitly stated that they intend to “circumvent their long-recognised weakness in submarine warfare by cultivating undersea AI and by developing highly capable UUVs”. Although China’s “Blue Ocean Information Network” is designed for monitoring the marine environment, but its use by its submarines for sensing and communications purposes merits attention. Reportedly such a system has already been deployed in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and can potentially be deployed in the Arabian Sea (Pakistan) and the Bay of Bengal (Myanmar) right at the doorstep of India.

Meanwhile, in September 2021, the US Navy set up Task Force 59 which is being integrated with the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Manama, Bahrain. The unmanned systems are deployed from Bahrain and Aqaba in Jordan. Over the past year the Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) operated for over 25,000 hours and, in particular, the Saildrone Explorer USV operated at sea for as long as 220 consecutive days without refueling or maintenance.

A ‘4IR technology rivalry’ among the navies is already underway. Though competition is welcomed in the hope that it will lead to the development of new and innovative products, military 4IR competition is mired in geopolitical and geostrategic contestations. There is a sense of urgency among the navies to gain 4IR ascendency to obtain a favourable naval balance of power.

At another level, deployment and use of autonomous weapon systems can have potentially worrisome outcomes. There are fears that humans would be sidelined and pushed to the secondary level. Complex military tasks such as decision-making and commands to weapons could potentially engender lack of oversight. Perhaps the biggest worry is that by surrendering unbridled control to machines to take decisions to kill, injure, or destroy could challenge ethics of war fighting and human values.

This debate has caught the attention of the governments, policy makers, technology developers and non-government organisations. The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are examining multiple dimensions of 4IR technologies particularly in the context of warfare, and technology giants such as Google, Tesla and IBM are not keen to pursue research and development of some lethal technologies that have direct impact on international law and human rights.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) too is spearheading the global debate on ethics and conscience in the context of use of fully autonomous weapon systems and has promoted the critical need for a minimum level of human control over weapon systems. A number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) too have joined the ICRC chorus and are demanding a global ban on ‘killer robots’ including a treaty for emerging weapons.

There is visible euphoria in the Indian Navy over the 4IR-enabled weapons that are being added to its fighting menu. However, it also necessitates a deeper understanding of promises and perils that any new weapon technology attracts. These technologies should necessarily be responsible, governable and traceable particularly in the context of ‘rules of engagement’.

The article has been authored by Vijay Sakhuja, a maritime security analyst.

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