India’s emergence as a strategic actor in Asia has drawn attention to its Navy’s role as a security provider in the Indian Ocean. With growing maritime reach, and an admirable record of service in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Navy (IN) is widely seen as an important security player in the Asian commons. Beyond securing the critical Indian Ocean sea lanes, however, the Navy has also had to deal with a sharp uptick in irregular threats in India’s near-seas. Ever so often, the mission has involved combating extra-regional influence in India’s maritime neighbourhood through subtle power projection.
The strategic nature of threats has underscored the importance of technology in expanding naval offensive and defensive capabilities. Despite expanding its combat prowess, the Indian Navy has grappled with systemic deficiencies and delays in shipbuilding projects. As a corollary, there has been a growing clamour for the infusion of superior knowhow in naval systems to preserve IN’s combat edge. India’s maritime analysts have been worried about the deployment of Chinese warships and nuclear submarines in India’s near-seas. The anxiety has been heightened by South Asia’s emergence as a theatre of geopolitical contestation, leading to urgent calls within the Indian strategic community to speed up IN’s modernisation. Asia’s murky power politics has highlighted the strategic imperative of robust maritime presence operations in the near-littorals.
Maritime observers are convinced that a high-stakes technological contest is unfolding in the Asian littorals. It involves growing attempts by rival powers to acquire modern capability for effective posturing at sea. These include precision-guided missiles, advanced intelligence, surveillance equipment and autonomous systems. The push towards advanced munitions, unmanned combat vehicles, quantum computing technology and hypersonic, has led many to contemplate new kinds of warfare scenarios involving cyber, space and energy weapons.
The Push for Naval Modernisation
Studies of the future maritime environment have acknowledged the increasing predisposition of navies to employ modern weaponry for posturing and deterrence. These include the use of precision-guided missiles, unmanned vehicles and networked systems to achieve theatre dominance. There are indications that the use of long-range sensors and precision-strike capabilities in the future will rise exponentially, even as the maritime battle-space undergoes a veritable compression, imposing sharp restrictions on the freedom of manoeuvre of surface naval forces.
Analysts aver maritime operations in the post-modern era are likely to involve operational concepts that would require remote sensing and stand-off capability. By popular reckoning, in many of these areas—viz. scouting campaigns, network centric warfare, special operations and littoral war-fighting—unmanned and autonomous systems will play an important role in influencing events, both during peace and conflict.
Despite an early foray into indigenisation over five decades ago, IN hasn’t yet succeeded in constructing an efficient maritime industrial complex. While India’s warship construction programme has proceeded apace (with at least 48 ships and submarines under construction in Indian shipyards), most projects remain dependant on foreign technology. To add, larger institutional lacunae such as insufficient capital, dated technology and deficient planning, continue to plague the system.
Even so, maritime managers remain optimistic about IN’s technological developments. Last year, the Navy announced the release of a guideline document, the ‘Indian Naval Indigenisation Plan (INIP) 2015-2030’, to enunciate the need for developing various advanced systems for its platforms. An ungraded version of a previous plan for the period 2008-2022, the new document sought to outline projects for a new phase of self-reliance, involving local manufacturing of advanced equipment under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.
In particular, naval engineers are said to have identified critical cutting-edge technologies to build into the warship building plan. The Navy plans to induct high-definition radars, infra-red seeker, sonars and electronic warfare suites to minimise foreign dependence for sensors and weapons. This appears consistent with the Ministry of Defence’s Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap (TPCR-2103) that calls for the acquisition of modern subsonic, supersonic and ballistic missiles, equipment and sensors, propulsion and power generation, and surveillance and detection systems. More significant is the advocated shift from an ammunition-based, theatre-centric model to a directed energy weapons-based network-centric model.
Further, more instructive is a wishlist of 100 new technologies announced by IN in May 2016, to be acquired by 2031. These can broadly be classified into five major types of sensors and weapons.
Precision Guided Missiles (PGM)
The first category of keenly sought after technology is precision munitions, particularly drone-launched guided missiles and loitering missiles. There is a growing realisation in Indian military circles that smart ammunitions have a distinct set of advantages over conventional munitions. For their versatile and flexibility of usage, the sheer range of potential targets, and the ability to limit collateral damage, the former are a clearly superior choice. The fact that smart ammo can be deployed onboard unmanned aerial vehicles, a platform of choice during littoral operations, makes it an attractive option.
Unfortunately, India’s precision ammunition manufacturing technology remains underdeveloped. Efforts to establish joint ventures for precision-guided munitions (PGM) manufacturing haven’t found much success, owing principally to the lack of capital investments necessary for such ventures. The precision attack and targeting capabilities of Indian Armed Forces are currently limited to laser-guided bomb (LGB) kits attached to dumb bombs on Air Force jets. The increasing usage of precision bombs and missiles in Indian naval and air weapon systems hasn’t done much to expand India’s indigenous manufacturing capabilities. Despite considerable efforts, New Delhi remains dependant on import of smart munitions.
With “loitering” missiles too, the story hasn’t been much different. Nirbhay, the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) subsonic cruise missile, is yet to clear its field tests. With an ability to lurk undetected over a target area and a capacity for higher loads of ordinance, subsonic missiles are considered indispensable by modern maritime forces. Unfortunately, with subsonic missiles, success has been fairly limited.
In April 2016, reports that OIS Advanced Technology (OIS-AT) is partnering with Sagem of France to manufacture the munitions locally for the Indian Air Force caused some cheer in defence circles. DRDO says its negotiations with Sagem will lead to the development of the New General Guidance Munition (NGPGM), a 1000-kilogramme class bomb compatible with the Indian Air Force’s Mirage-2000H/TH. The successful miniaturisation of ammunition for aircraft operations could lead to the development of missiles for naval drones in the future.
Net Centric Operations
Since the early 2000s, IN had been on the lookout for a satellite which could shorten the ‘sensor-to-shooter loop’ to swiftly detect and tackle tactical threats. While the DRDO has developed the means to build such a platform, it didn’t have an indigenous GSLV rocket to carry the satellite.
After several years of trial and error, India finally launched its first dedicated military satellite GSAT-7 or ‘Rukmini’ in 2013. A geo-stationary communication satellite, the GSAT-7 enables real-time networking of all Indian warships, submarines and aircraft with operational centres ashore, providing IN with an almost 2,000-nautical-mile-footprint over the critical IOR. With UHF, S, Ku and C-band transponders, the Rukmini’s ‘over-the-sea’ usage will soon be complemented by the GSAT-7A, a satellite dedicated for IAF and Indian Army operations.
Expectedly, the GSAT series is superior to the ‘dual use’ Cartosat satellites or the Technology Experimental Satellite that the Indian Armed Forces previously used for surveillance, navigation and communication purposes. Rukmini’s ability to keep an eye on the IOR by providing real-time inputs was demonstrated at a theatre-level readiness exercise earlier in 2016, when near complete integration and synergy was achieved between two widely dispersed but networked fleets in the Indian Ocean.
Meanwhile, the Navy has also placed navigation satellites in orbit. In September 2016, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) placed the seventh satellite of the Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) in orbit. NAVIC, as the IRNSS is popularly called, will be used to provide accurate real-time positioning and timing services over India and the region, extending upto 1,500 km around India. The constellation consists of three satellites in Geostationary Orbit (GEO) and four in Geosynchronous Orbit (GSO), about 36,000 kms above the Earth’s surface.
The challenge now is to place low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in space since IRNSS does not provide good photographic intelligence about enemy forces and assets in a dynamic war situation. ISRO engineers say the IRNSS is not equipped with cameras and sensors and, therefore, is not capable of providing high-quality photographic intelligence in real-time.
In principle, India has always opposed the weaponisation of space. The Ministry of Defence’s TPCR-2013, however, dwelt on the need to develop ASAT weapons “for electronic or physical destruction of satellites in both LEO (2,000km altitude above earth’s surface) and Geosynchronous orbits”. Despite their deletion in subsequent roadmaps, the need to exploit space for military purposes has been clearly established.
A year earlier, V.K. Saraswat, the then chief of DRDO had announced that India was moving to integrate an anti-satellite weapon to neutralise hostile satellites in low earth and polar orbits. In an interview, Saraswat suggested that India’s anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence programme could be utilised as an ASAT weapon, along with its Agni series of missiles.
Even today, DRDO contends that it can develop ASAT weapons if required by marrying the propulsion system of the over 5,000-km Agni-V missile with the ‘kill vehicle’ of its two-tier BMD (ballistic missile defence) system. According to defence engineers, work has begun on a futuristic programme for launching ‘mini-satellites on demand’ for use in the battlefield as well as ‘EMP (electromagnetic pulse) hardening’ of satellites and sensors to protect them against ASAT weapons.
Many Indian analysts, however, say ASAT capabilities require a number of technologies that India does not presently possess. These include modern space-based sensors, synthetic aperture radars, electronics, sound navigation system, guidance and control, and global positioning systems. There are also questions about India’s ability to produce infrared sensors, optical devices, electronic-optical sensors, and magnetic sensors vital for detecting and monitoring events in space.
It is ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI)—the ability for combat platforms to self-control, self-regulate and self-actuate, using inherent computing and decision-making capabilities—that constitutes the most radical and contested of all new technologies.
Advanced computing technologies today enable autonomous systems to identify and strike hostile targets, a phenomenon that has led to a growing interest in ‘intelligent’ naval combat systems. The advent of data-driven decision making in naval systems is fuelling efforts to combine AI with analytics and cloud computing. More crucially, maritime forces are charting a move away from the diagnostic to the predictive space—shifting from the management of data to actual decision-making, powering decision-cycles of combat systems.
Even so, there are complex questions that require firm answers. Many of them have to do with the ethics of AI. While drones avoid subjective decisions based on incomplete information and tensions, they sometimes find it hard to avoid risky manoeuvres, leading to untoward incidents or collateral damage in combat situations. Autonomous weapons also pose many legal and moral dilemmas. Consensus, for instance, is yet to evolve on whether the use of AI-prosecuted targets in battle—without due authorisation from a human source—constitutes a legitimate act. Indeed, many naval commanders express reservations about divesting human executive control over weapons systems.
And yet, there is little denying the need for modern-day operators to be actively assisted by sensors and systems. AI provides the technology to augment human analysis and decision-making by capturing knowledge that can be re-applied in critical situations. It seeks to alter human intervention from ‘in-the-loop’ controller to ‘on-the-loop’ thinker who can focus on a more reflective assessment of problems and strategies, guiding rather than being buried in execution detail.
AI, however, really implies an inherent ability for a combat system to take targeting decisions. It’s worth emphasising that maritime forces, including many in the Navy, remain skeptical of autonomous weapon systems with independent targeting capability. Operational commanders still regard the decision to execute a missile launch as the exclusive preserve of the command team, which must act independently. Notwithstanding its utility in remotely operated weapons like drones, broader questions about AI’s utilisation in combat remain unanswered.
Directed Energy Weapons
Around the world, a top priority with navies is to get their ships off gunpowder—a high vulnerability for naval ships, whose explosive laden magazines represent the nautical equivalent of a ticking time-bomb. As a result, a growing number of maritime forces around the world have made a push for energy weapons. Russia, US and China have all made major strides in high-energy laser and microwave technologies, which have shown the potential for altering the dynamics of maritime battle.
Many of these navies have focused on perfecting state-of-the-art energy weapons, which incorporate precision tracking/pointing and laser beam combination. India’s DRDO, too, is prioritising Direct Energy Weapons (DEW) development in the technology perspective and capability roadmap. The agency claims it has already built a number of smaller DEW systems. These include devices designed to disarm mines and other IEDs, vehicle-mounted crowd control units, and hand-held devices capable of overpowering armed individuals
The question of how viable laser weapons are going to be in the long term, however, continues to vex the naval scientific community. There is talk of chemical oxygen iodine lasers, high-power fibre lasers and a 25-kilowatt laser that can knock out a ballistic missile during its ‘terminal phase’ from up to four miles away. These are ambitious plans that do not look achievable in near future. Besides, mounting energy weapons aboard aircraft and naval ships is a challenging proposition, owing in no small part to the difficulty engineers face in directing a focused energy beam from a moving platform.
Yet, the difficulties are well worth the payoff. DEWs offer a number of advantages, including cost-effectiveness and an ammunition supply limited only by the weapon’s power source. Energy weapons also fire at the speed of light, is virtually silent, and can limit collateral damage.
This is one reason why supported weapons programmes, like Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and the electromagnetic rail gun, are being tested by many top-ranking navies—including the US Navy. These new weapons have a virtually unlimited magazine, only constrained by power and cooling capabilities onboard the vessel carrying them. Not only do these provide safety for sailors and marines, they also reduce dependency on gunpowder-based munitions. Many Indian scientists now believe the potential cost savings offered by laser weapons and low-cost electromagnetic railgun projectiles (as against expensive missiles) make energy weapons a worthwhile investment for the DRDO.
Unmanned Aerial Systems and ‘Smart’ Missiles
For IN, unmanned systems constitute the holy grail of futuristic warfare. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are a source of enduring interest because of their ability to remain on station for extended periods and provide crucial data in real time.
The Navy’s three UAV squadrons in Kochi (Kerala), Porbandar (Gujarat) and Ramanathapuram (Tamil Nadu) operate Heron and the Searcher MK II vehicles for coastal surveillance. Each squadron has eight Searchers II and six Heron UAVs, with each unmanned platform possessing a capability to operate at an altitude ceiling of 15,000 ft to 30,000 ft. Reportedly, plans are in place to induct at least two more squadrons of UAVs to be controlled from ships to increase the range of surveillance. These units would be specifically employed in reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering missions in the far littorals.
IN also plans to induct strategic unmanned systems, including a fleet of high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) maritime UAVs as well as rotary-wing tactical UAS. Since 2010, Indian naval officials have been in discussions with their US counterparts for the possible transfer of a fleet of high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) maritime UAVs—the modified Global Hawk developed under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme.
In March 2015, IN invited bids for ship-borne UAVs that can augment various patrolling and search-related tactics on its vessels. In order to enhance ISR capabilities and monitoring of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), as also to improve EEZ safety, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism patrols, naval managers have expressed the need for ship-launched UAVs that can enable communication between sea-borne platforms and other friendly vessels, aircraft and satellites, especially IN’s dedicated naval satellite.
In some ways, the growing propensity of navies for autonomous operations is a reflection of the growing tensions in Asia-Pacific. The unprecedented rise in surveillance platforms deployed in the South China Sea, particularly China’s deployment of high-tech drones, such as the Harbin BZK-005, has reinforced a perception in New Delhi that Chinese future military operations will focus on dominating Asia’s littorals.
Fearing an expansion of PLAN presence in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has sought to improve its surveillance capabilities in the IOR by inducting long-range maritime aircraft (P 8-Is) and seeking the transfer of the multi-mission ‘Predator’ platforms from US. In addition, Israel will supply 10 Heron TP armed drones for the Indian Air Force, capable of carrying 2,000 kg of weapons payload and air-to-ground precision missiles. India already operates unarmed Heron-1 aircraft for surveillance and reconnaissance missions and a fleet of Harpy drones—a self-destruct aircraft carrying a high-explosive warhead and primarily used for taking out enemy radar stations.
Unmanned Underwater Vehicles
For the past few years, the DRDO has been designing and developing multiple autonomous underwater vehicle (AUVs) to meet broader operational requirements for futuristic scenarios. In April 2016, DRDO scientists successfully developed an autonomous underwater prototype for multiple maritime missions in India’s waters. A feasibility study undertaken for the development of different types of AUV platforms showed that the Indian R&D was capable of designing various kinds of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs)—from hand-held slow-speed ones to military-class platforms—with the capability to assist in the entire gamut of maritime security.
DRDO’s prototype is a flat fish-shaped vehicle capable of speeds upto 7 kmph at depths of up to 300 metres below sea level. Fully pre-programmed in terms of algorithms and mission requirements, the robotic vehicle is piloted by an on-board computer developed by the Visakhapatnam-based Naval Science and Technology Laboratory (NSTL). The design, apparently, is being reworked upon to provide the prototype with passive sonar and electro-optical sensors for anti-mining missions.
Meanwhile, NSTL is working on an ambitious programme called ‘Autonomous Sea Vehicle’ (ASV), modelled on the US Navy’s ‘Manta Unmanned Underwater Vehicle’ programme. A ‘submadrone’, a submarine-launched swimming spy plane contained within an underwater drone with folded wings housed in a torpedo canister, and the Indian ASV will be launched from submarine tubes and deployed in reconnaissance mode for a fixed time period.For deep-sea exploration, India has the Samudra, a low-cost AUV that operates underwater with pre-programmed inputs. Fitted with an on-board image processing unit, it can undertake path detection, obstacle avoidance and target identification under the sea.
The development of unmanned and autonomous underwater vehicles (U/AUV) is likely to depend on the future effectiveness of such platforms in carrying out conventional submarine missions. Analysts point out that modern submarines’ need for secrecy limits their utility in the far-littorals. If underwater vehicles could replace submarines, then a navy’s appetite for greater adventurism in enemy waters could rise significantly.
The more important implication of U/AUV operations is the shift in anti-submarine warfare operations from defensive to offensive missions. Since their inception, ASW techniques have been used primarily to protect specific assets in critical littoral spaces. The thrust of the naval effort has involved protection of the core of the fleet from prowling submarines. U/AUVs challenge the existing paradigm by targeting submarines on open patrol. In order to negate the advantages of modern submarines in terms of high endurance, speed and an inherent stealth, unmanned platforms are being designed to operate in packs, making it harder for submarines to escape detection in constrained spaces.
The Way Forward
For India, the main technological challenge is to reduce the imported content of indigenously produced naval sensors and weapons. While there are plans to build future naval technologies under the ‘Make in India’ initiative, it is unclear if an outright indigenisation approach to technology will be effective. The problem for New Delhi is that even though foreign defence companies are willing to collaborate with Indian manufacturers, they are reluctant to transfer cutting-edge technologies. Equally worrisome, however, is the suboptimal capacity of Indian firms to acquire and absorb foreign technology.
Outwardly, the maritime technology mission seems well defined. Through the INIP, the Navy has announced its ship-building ambitions, which it believes will enable India to be a net provider of security in the maritime neighbourhood, thus building capability and enhancing capacity of regional partners. Yet, the shortfalls in terms of both Indian R&D and Indian manufacturing remain serious. For maritime managers, the mission involves five urgent tasks (a) R&D in military sciences and technologies; (b) amalgamation of R&D and the manufacturing sector; (c) bringing about an integration of users, designers and manufacturers; (d) making projects commercially viable, achieving economies of scale; and (e) tiding over technology-denial regimes.
It is the infusion of foreign technology and capital that is likely to present the biggest challenge, especially in the manufacturing of modern sensors and weapons. In the case of high-range hypersonic missiles, laser and directed energy weapons, for instance, Indian scientists haven’t managed much external support. Outer space too hasn’t attracted too much foreign collaboration. Since 2007, when Beijing tested its ASAT (anti-satellite) weapons against low Earth orbit satellites, New Delhi has been on the lookout for counter-space capabilities. After China’s space agency tested ‘direct-ascent kinetic kill’ capabilities, the space project acquired urgency. A growing number of senior Indian military officials point to the inevitability of a military race with China to protect space assets and a contest in space. Yet, Indian scientists acknowledge the lack of technology and investment in inducting kinetic and directed-energy laser weapons.
With network-centricity, the basic building blocks seem to be in place. Key data links are being produced indigenously, and more networked military communication satellites will soon be orbit. The critical part will be the integration of modern weapon systems into the wider architecture for which more investment and R&D will be needed.
Going forward, autonomous platforms are likely to be an area of focus. DRDO’s project to indigenise Rustom-I, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV, by integrating HELINA, a locally developed anti-tank missile, is slowly progressing. Even though the avionics of Rustom have posed some problems, Rustom-2, an upgraded platform, completed its first flight in November 2016 from Challakere near Bengaluru.
A key enabler for armed UAV flights in India would be the new domestically developed satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS) called GAGAN, useful for navigation and precision vertical guidance for commercial airplanes. Designed essentially to assist civil aviation in India through the enhancement of satellite navigation (SATNAV) signals, GAGAN will be available to Indian military users as well. Local industry has been trying to develop a light-weight GAGAN receiver module that can be fitted aboard UAVs and is capable of receiving ‘refined’ signals from the American GPS, Russian GLONASS, and Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) which will become fully operational in the near future.
The more complicated task will be the development of UUVs, where Indian engineers will need to fully comprehend demands that future operations are likely to place on underwater autonomous platforms’ ISR sensors, and command and control systems. The bottom line objective for India’s R&D community will be to extend operational awareness within the battle space without assistance from manned systems and human decision makers. At the same time, UUVs will need to accurately assess the operational environment and undertake calibrated action in foreign waters without escalating an existing situation. The critical requirement is to ensure that the quality of command decisions closely matches those taken by naval commanders.
For the moment, it appears, the institutional focus is likely to be in areas where there is a base level of expertise—mainly maritime sensors such as electronic warfare suites and sonars. Many of the DRDO-developed EW systems, such as Ajanta, Ellora and Porpoise, installed on the latest frontline surface, airborne and subsurface combatants, will likely be substantially upgraded. Likewise, IN’s family of advanced underwater-sensors, including Advanced Panoramic Sonar Hull mounted (APSOH), Hull-mounted Sonar Advanced (HUMSA) and USHUS, will be developed further.
To build future war-fighting capabilities, the key for IN will be to acquire disruptive technologies, including electromagnetic rail guns and kinetic energy projectiles; laser-directed weapons, weapon-control systems and communication suites. New naval aviation assets—such as carrier-borne fixed-wing aircraft, ship-borne multirole rotary-wing aircraft, ship/carrier-launched-and-recovered UAVs and UCAVs—will also need to be built in under the Make in India programme.
IN has ambitions to acquire and develop technologies in many crucial areas. Going forward, military scientists will need to show progress with high-definition radars, infrared seekers, precision munitions and energy weapons. It will be important to build these weapons under license, for which both government and private industry will need to spend more on research and development. The critical task will be to expand research and development to a level where India maritime technological initiatives become self-sustaining.