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Stiff target for weapons upgrade

2030 deadline in mind, Army Chief has labelled 2023 as ‘year of transformation’ with push for indigenous technology

Stiff target for weapons upgrade

Indian Army’s Brahmos Missile System was displayed at this year’s Republic Day celebrations. ANI

Ajay Banerjee

LOOKING at new technologies, the Indian Army has designated the year 2023 as the ‘year of transformation’, which, among other aspects, kicks off a specific long-term plan for upgrading the profile of weaponry, equipment and war-fighting gadgets by 2030.

Army Chief General Manoj Pande had, in January, announced a ‘shift in stated goals’ and laid out a new target for adding state-of-the-art weapons and reducing the number of weapons and systems that are classified in the category of ‘vintage’.

An India-US exercise underway in Uttarakhand last November. Photo courtesy: MoD

Gen Pande said on January 12: “As of now, 45 per cent of our equipment is vintage, 41 per cent of the equipment is of current technology and some 12-15 per cent of the equipment is state-of-the-art.” By 2030, the aim is to have 45 per cent equipment in the state-of-the-art category and 35 per cent of current technology, he added.

Gen Pande’s statement is a shift in targets and policy. In the recent past, the Ministry of Defence mentioned in Parliament that the equipment profile should be in the ratio of 30:40:30, meaning 30 per cent state-of-the-art, 40 per cent current technology weapons and 30 per cent vintage.

What is this upgradation

In the past many decades, gradual upgrades were carried out but the existing tanks, helicopters, artillery guns, rockets and assault rifles face the threat of disruption.

As the arc of technology widens, the wishlist of the Army ranges from low earth orbit satellites to tethered drones and from robotic mules to jet-packs worn by troops. Already, the force, in the past three years or so, has taken a technological leap and is getting long-range artillery. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) centre at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering (MCTE), Mhow, has set up multiple projects which are working on ground. The AI-based surveillance systems now dot the 749-km-long Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan and also the 3,448-km-long Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

It has the active support of industry, start-ups and academia.

Swarm drones have been ordered for use in the Himalayas where India is handicapped by the terrain of rough and high peaks. Each drone in a swarm has the capability to carry out individual as well as collective tasks. For the tank and mechanised formations, the Army is looking at 750 autonomous combat vehicles (ACVs).

Precision-strike UAVs, the ‘Predators’, 5G communications, air defence systems with augmented reality, laser and energy directed weapons, besides complex algorithms to encrypt data, are among the technologies that would see the light of day.

Maj Gen BS Dhanoa (retd), who retired as Commander of the Higher Command Wing at the Army War College at Mhow, says, “The actual number and type of equipment will be solely dependent upon our R&D capabilities, indigenous production, and the ability of the Army to induct these in sufficient numbers.”

It is likely that future high-tech platforms are better iterations of tanks, helicopters, artillery guns and precision rocket systems, besides UAVs, for reconnaissance and for striking at targets, says Maj Gen Dhanoa, a former Armoured Corps officer.

Possible additions could be an array of electronic surveillance, detection and jamming systems, including against unmanned aerial and ground threats, he adds.

Technology roadmap

The Army is pursuing a ‘modernisation and technology’ infusion. “It has a defined roadmap for adding niche technologies,” says a serving officer. Most of the technology is to be ‘disruptive’ to surprise the adversary.

Amit Cowshish, former financial adviser, Ministry of Defence, says, “It seems the state-of-the-art equipment for the Army could be guided by imperatives of making the force nimble and lethal. A greater use of AI, smart munitions, agile combat platforms, and remotely operated equipment, is possible.” It is unlikely that all of these new additions would be remotely crewed or be autonomous weapons’ systems, avers Maj Gen Dhanoa.

On mission mode

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is working on 55 projects that are termed to be on ‘mission mode’ at a sanctioned cost of Rs 73,942 crore for the three services. For the Army, the projects include nuclear defence technologies, air droppable containers, cruise missiles, UAVs, assault rifles, warheads, light machine guns, rockets, advanced towed artillery gun system (ATAGS), infantry combat vehicles, tactical radios, electronic warfare systems, radars and geographical information system.

The National Mission on Interdisciplinary Cyber Physical Systems under the Department of Science and Technology has separate hubs working on specific technologies. Some of these are dual-purpose use — military and civilian. These include the work at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning; Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, for Robotics and Autonomous Systems; IIT-Roorkee for materials; IIT-Madras for sensors, and IIT-Hyderabad for Autonomous Navigation.

Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), launched by the Ministry of Defence in 2018, is meant for co-creation and co-development in the defence sector. The iDEX provides financial support to start-ups, MSMEs and individual innovators. In December last year, it signed the 150th contract with private industry.

At present, a programme is open under iDEX seeking solutions for the armed forces in the space domain.

How will new systems work

A scenario could be like this. The AI-backed surveillance systems along the LAC are backed by an intelligent monitoring system which reads movement patterns across the border areas. These could be feeds from over-flying drones or ground-based sensors and even cameras. All inputs are collated and an assessment is made in real-time on how to tackle the troops, equipment or flying objects sent in by the adversary. AI is enabling remote target detection as well as classification of targets — if it’s a man or machine, armed or unarmed. These projects are part of the 12 AI domains identified by the National Task Force of Technology.

Among the new gadgets being looked at for tackling threats on the ground is a remote-controlled weapon station that will allow a heavy machine gun operator to fire the weapon remotely. Ninety such remote systems are being procured for eastern Ladakh and forward areas along the Himalayas. The Army wants the system to recognise a target and also fire at command.

To tackle close-range threats in the air, the Army intends to procure 220 air defence guns to strike at fighter aircraft, transport aircraft, helicopters, UAVs, cruise missiles, besides slow-moving paragliders. The guns need to be mated with radars that will allow immediate firing at threats.

Achieving targets

Is the target set by the Army Chief achievable with these emerging new in-house technologies?

Amit Cowshish, being the finance man, lends perspective: “Money will be a major constraint, apart from procedural complexities and the long gestation period of major acquisition programmes.” He refuses to put a figure on the money needed for this upgrade. Maj Gen Dhanoa terms the Army Chief’s statement “aspirational in nature”. It’s a statement of intent but it does not automatically translate into capability in a given timeframe (till 2030).

Within the strategic circles, the Army Chief’s target has become a talking point. “Even if the Army can get to a level of 35 per cent of state-of-the-art weapons, it will be success story,” a mid-level officer says.

What is state-of-the-art

It’s a classification arrived at by comparing what other leading militaries are operating and is considered the latest in its class. For example, the Akash missile system is in the state-of-the-art category.

Current weapons are those that are within the operating lifespan claimed by the manufacturer.

The operating life of a product decides its classification. If the life of an artillery gun is listed as 25 years by the manufacturer, it is deemed to be off the current weapons list when it completes 25 years in service. To explain, the 130 mm field gun is ‘vintage’.

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