By Rakesh Krishnan Simha
he body count of counter insurgency operations in India makes disturbing reading. In April 2010, 76 CRPF policemen were killed in an ambush by Maoist terrorists in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh. In February 2019, 40 Indian Army soldiers died in an attack by a vehicle-borne Islamic terrorist in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir. In the latest attack, in April 2021, a group of over 400 Maoists ambushed and killed 22 commandos of the Cobra Task Force in Sukma, Chhattisgarh. Many attacks never made the headlines because the body count wasn’t in double digits.
There are a number of things wrong with India’s counter-insurgency strategy – foremost being poor leadership by Indian Police Service carpetbaggers who know squat about counterinsurgency operations and yet will not relinquish control of the paramilitary forces. Our soldiers continue to be burdened with malfunctioning INSAS rifles, inadequate body armour and lack of modern reconnaissance equipment. Since these are issues that have been flagged innumerable times over the past decades and still haven’t been sorted, there is little hope our paramilitary forces will get much respite in these areas.
So what is the way out? Since poor leadership is placing our forces in harm’s way all the time, it is time to keep our soldiers out of harm’s way as much as possible through the use of autonomous weapons? This is no longer science fiction. As the use of artificial intelligence (AI) grows, robots and intelligent machines are being used in military operations in a number of tasks – surveillance, intelligence collection, bomb disposal and search and rescue.
A difficult to avoid aspect of land warfare operations is that enemy positions are often discovered after they have opened fire on advancing units – an unavoidably risky proposition while performing searches or during an assault on well-concealed enemy positions. For these dangerous missions, a commander could deploy autonomous weapons remotely, forcing adversaries to open fire and expose their positions without risking his troops’ lives.
Composition of autonomous systems
The building blocks of autonomous weapons are unmanned vehicles and robotic technologies. According to the Arms Control Association, “Autonomous weapons systems require the integration of several core elements: a mobile combat platform, such as a drone aircraft, ship, or ground vehicle; sensors of various types to scrutinise the platform’s surroundings; processing systems to classify objects discovered by the sensors; and algorithms directing the platform to initiate attack when an allowable target is detected.”
In step with the rise of Internet of Robotic Things technology, the next logical progression in battlefield robotic weaponry are robots that will operate as a team and understand and follow orders without constant supervision from humans. The use of robot soldiers will not only save lives, it will cut down the costs of training, equipping and deploying real human soldiers who can be used more productively. When equipped with advanced sensors and AI, autonomous weapons could be trained to operate in coordinated swarms, or wolf packs, overwhelming enemy defenders and affording a speedy victory.
Signalling the dawn of a new era in ground warfare, US Army researchers are looking to add muscle tissue to robot platforms, giving them never before seen mobility and agility. The effort led by scientists with the US Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command is looking first at adding muscle to legged robot joints rather than using actuators. The goal is to get legged robots, which have certain utilities in rough terrain, better stability in on uneven, cluttered surfaces.
“Future possible applications include AI-enabled drone swarms to boost surveillance capabilities; robot sentries along the borders to check infiltration by terrorists; autonomous armed UAVs for use in conventional as well as sub-conventional scenarios, and so on. In general, saving own soldiers from the lethality of war would yield rich dividends to any military force, especially in conventional conflicts,”
– Lieutenant General (Retired) Ravindra Singh Panwar, Army Veteran
The US Army has devised a long-term strategy for the development of robotic and autonomous systems and their integration into the combat force. To start, it envisions an evolutionary process under which it will first deploy unarmed, unmanned utility vehicles and trucks, followed by the introduction of armed robotic vehicles with ever-increasing degrees of autonomy. Toward this end, it is proceeding to acquire the SMET, an unmanned vehicle designed to carry infantry combat supplies for up to 96 km over a 72-hour period. It will then undertake development of a robotised combat vehicle for performing dangerous missions at the front edge of the battlefield.
In Estonia, Milrem Robotics has developed a robot called THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System), which consists of a mobile body mounted on small tank treads, topped with a remote-weapon turret that can be equipped with small or large-calibre machine guns. It also includes cameras and target-tracking software, so the turret can pursue people or objects as programmed. This is a human-controlled system for now, but the components are there for a robot that can interpret what it sees, identify likely combatants and target them, all on its own.
Russia’s Military Industry Committee has declared its objective of deploying 30 per cent of the country’s kinetic weapons on remote-control platforms by 2025. Current projects include the MARS six-seat infantry carrier, the robotic BMP-3 Vihr (“Hurricane”) fighting vehicle, robotised T-72 tanks, and the tiny Nerekhta unmanned vehicle that can evacuate wounded soldiers, fire a machine gun or make a kamikaze charge at enemy positions.
Robotic warfare at home
For India, which faces asymmetric warfare against China and Pakistan – and their tools like Khalistanis, Maoists and Islamic fundamentalists – unmanned vehicles have multiple benefits. Their development and deployment would lead to the saving of human lives, especially our soldiers and police.
In 2019, the Rashtriya Rifles, the Indian Army’s highly successful counterinsurgency division in J&K, requested robotics surveillance machines with the capability to climb stairs and negotiate obstacles in built-up areas. Rashtriya Rifles is looking for precise delivery of suitable munitions through robotics platforms during counter-insurgency operations. The platform must also be capable of delivering suitable munitions at the intended target, for example, throwing grenade at places where the terrorists are holed up.
During cordon-and-search-operations in the Valley, these robots will be the first line of defence, thus helping prevent casualties. “This would avoid casualty to our own troops during initial breach by terrorists,” the officer said.
According to Lieutenant General (Retired) Ravindra Singh Panwar, autonomous systems designed to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are already in use by Indian forces, although these are non-lethal and defensive in nature. In a report for the New Delhi-based Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MPIDSA), he says, “Future possible applications include AI-enabled drone swarms to boost surveillance capabilities; robot sentries along the borders to check infiltration by terrorists; autonomous armed UAVs for use in conventional as well as sub-conventional scenarios, and so on. In general, saving own soldiers from the lethality of war would yield rich dividends to any military force, especially in conventional conflicts.”
Currently, India has installed laser detectors at the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir to detect Pakistani terrorists sneaking into the country. Indian soldiers still have to go and engage the intruders in a firefight, but if our soldiers had fast access to all-terrain robotised vehicles at their disposal, the terrorists could be neutralised with zero risk to soldiers.
Robots to the rescue
Taking the operator out of the machine and fighting remotely will allow new tactics and techniques to be implemented without being hampered by such factors as fear, stress and fatigue. For instance, in some circumstances, greater autonomy of robotic systems may create additional operational and tactical advantages or resolve problems that hamper performance in the field (such as the need to maintain secure communications between robots and the command posts).
Robots may even create a safer battlefield. According to Toby Walsh, a professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, “The most interesting argument for autonomous weapons is that robots can be more ethical.” Humans, after all, sometimes commit war crimes, deliberately targeting innocents or killing people who’ve surrendered. And humans get fatigued, stressed, and confused, and end up making mistakes. Robots, by contrast, “follow exactly their code”, says Walsh.
Pentagon defence expert Paul Scharre explores that idea in his 2018 book, ‘Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War’. “Unlike human soldiers,” he points out, “machines never get angry or seek revenge.” And “it isn’t hard to imagine future weapons that could outperform humans in distinguishing between a person holding a rifle and one holding a rake.”
Companies could design weapons that are programmed to know the laws of war. Accordingly, these weapons will countermand any order from a human that violates those laws. Autonomous weapons could also be developed that do not have the authority to kill without human oversight.
Fast tracking Indian development
In the context of India’s defence, presently there appears to be a void in terms of doctrines and perspective plans when it comes to the exploitation of AI and robotics technologies. “Occasional interactions by the defence establishment with the DRDO’s Centre for AI and Robotics (CAIR) and other agencies are inadequate to spur the latter into producing timely and meaningful results,” says General Panwar. “Given its track record, DRDO is unlikely to be successful in developing complex lethal autonomous systems anytime soon.”
Given the security landscape in the neighbourhood, India must join the development of these weapons via the private sector or joint venture route. Worldwide, R&D in these technologies is being driven by the private commercial sector rather than the defence industry. Given the right financial incentives, Indian companies with some handholding by the military can certainly come up with solutions that are customised for the country’s specific requirements. India’s advances in IT will prove to be a key advantage in this field.
The development of robotic systems has generated considerable alarm among Andolanjeevis (so-called human rights campaigners) who fear that deploying fully autonomous weapons in battle would severely reduce human oversight of combat operations, possibly resulting in violations of the laws of war.
While some degree of debate over the scope of a weapon’s morality is required, not developing these weapons would be a disaster. Liberal sensitivities about the introduction of robots that kill should not be allowed to impact developmental efforts. The focus must always be on keeping Indian soldiers, police and innocent civilians out of harm’s way.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda