There are more than 250 government or private drone developers or manufacturers in China. Some are working closely with technical universities and the government. China is investing heavily in Swarm Technology and Artificial Intelligence. With the rapid rate of development and astonishing test results, China appears to be leaving the US behind in this race. It is just a matter of time when it hands over these small low-cost toys to its all-weather friend Pakistan. Imagine the challenges it will pose to our conventional superiority and our integrated AD shield. The time to get ready for the future is NOW!
It is no secret that we are not ready for tomorrow’s battlefield. It is just because we have been busy preparing ourselves for a battlefield of yesteryears, of the late 1990s. We are still trying to achieve what the West had achieved towards the end of the twentieth century. Because our thinking is so conventional, we are not even looking into the future. It is time to evaluate what we have been doing for last 25 years and where the rest of the world, especially China, one of our main adversaries, is heading.
A Quick Scan of the Past
Indigenous weapon development started at a very slow pace. There were several reasons – inadequate funds, absence of technological know-how, an almost non-existent R&D base, no political will, and most importantly, a general lack of strategic thinking. Hence we moved at snail’s pace. Though we did well in areas of Space, Missile and Nuclear technology, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) remained less impressive in developing and delivering critical weapon systems within the promised timelines. The 1990s witnessed great changes in the Indian economy. Budgetary allocations to DRDO’s R&D increased albeit with little or no accountability. They did well with various kinds of Surface-to-Surface missile such as Agni, Prithvi and BrahMos, and are doing extremely well with the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) system.
A successful test of ASAT capability conducted recently is another feather in their cap. But few critical projects such as the LCA Tejas, Kaveri engine, MBT Arjun, ATGM Nag and UAV Rustom are still floundering. The armed forces are generally blamed for changing the General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQRs), while the DRDO develops the weapons system based on the originally finalised requirement. But one must realise that weapons technology is changing at a rapid pace. When the services do not receive the weapons system within the promised timeline, they update the GSQRs as per the latest threat perceptions. This has now become a vicious cycle.
Cyber threats, electronic warfare, Artificial Intelligence, stealth capabilities, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have taken warfare to the next level…
Nonetheless, we are still trying to complete the projects that were envisaged in the 1980s; the present state of these projects is not encouraging. The MBT Arjun is still overweight and the Tejas just received FOC in February 2019. Number 45 Squadron that was formed on July 01, 2016, with just four aircraft, is still awaiting its tenth Tejas. Hopefully, HAL will soon set up a second production line and improve the production rate to at least eight Tejas a year if not 16. The ATGM Nag will go into production by end- 2019 and the Rustom Mk1/Mk2 is still a distant dream. The list seems to go on and on.
The Indian armed forces, on the other hand, are busy bridging the preparation gap by procuring the equipment from the West or Russia. All three services are aiming to transform themselves into a lean, mean, lethal, quick and hi-tech war machine using C4ISR. A great deal of effort has gone into developing a network-centric warfare system using a host of sensors, radars (mobile/stationary/airborne), drones and satellites. This will provide complete situational awareness to the commander, so vital to facilitate quick decisive decisions. The fog of war, for the lack of information, will be very thin now.
The Present State
But the future battlefield will not be governed just by these elements. Cyber threats, electronic warfare, Artificial Intelligence, stealth capabilities, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have taken warfare to the next level. Unfortunately, these have not caught our attention with the sense of urgency they deserve, and our adversary is making great advancements in these fields. We are still finalising the Defence Cyber Agency, which, once established, will be a common agency for all three services. Meanwhile, China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) was created in 2015 to fight wars with technology and “no boots on the ground”. The SSF combines the functions of intelligence, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cyber warfare and space warfare. The combined effect of these gives the Chinese forces enormous capability to strike silently with punitive results; these capabilities, therefore, pose a great threat to our defence shield.
Cyber capabilities and electronic warfare are silently heating up the race for developing offensive and defensive capabilities. China is using these very effective and low-cost solutions to counter the increased presence of the United States Navy in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. In 2017, four US naval warships collided with civilian ships killing 17 sailors. In January 2017, the USS Antietam ran aground near Yosuka, Japan. Next was the cruiser USS Champlain, that collided with a South Korean shipping boat. Navy personnel had spotted the South Korean shipping boat, but could not contact it because the boat had no radio or GPS! On June 17, 2017, the USS Fitzgerald hit a Philipino container, killing seven sailors. Finally, USS Destroyer John McCain collided with a merchant vessel killing ten sailors. The collision left a gaping hole in the hull of the Destroyer.
International cyber security experts refuse to see coincidence or human error in these four incidents that occurred in or around the hyperactive Malacca Strait or the South China Sea area. They suspect a cyber/electronic attack behind these collisions, especially after the fourth collision. Commercial maritime tracking data, that is used to monitor ship movement, showed that a Chinese vessel was shadowing the merchant vessel that hit the USS John McCain. The Chinese vessel veered away shortly before the collision. This increased the US Navy investigators’ suspicions of a possible Chinese electronic attack.
In May 2017, just a month prior to the India-China Doklam stand-off, an IAF Su-30MKI took off from the IAF base at Tejpur and crashed near the Indo-China border. One of the suspected reasons for the crash was cyber interference with onboard computers. Perhaps that is why both the pilots could not activate the safe ejection system, though one of the pilots was an experienced Squadron Leader. And then in December 2017, we lost a drone in the Doklam area. It was on a routine flying mission and crashed into Chinese territory. India cited technical issues with the flying machine but China claimed that India was punished for not behaving properly.
In December 2017, at the Global Fortune Forum in Guangzhou, China set the record by showcasing a swarm of 1,108 dronebots…
Cyber Espionage/Surveillance and 5G
5G is the next generation mobile network that will revolutionise the way we access the internet and its implications will change our way of life. Last year, Deutsch Telekom tested the 5G speed at staggering 3Gbps (i.e. 3072Mbps)! And this speed will be available on a mobile phone! That would mean a full HD movie can be downloaded on a mobile phone in under five seconds. Compare it with the fastest available network (LTE) that provides a peak speed of 300Mbps. In due course, 5G will offer the best speed of 10Gbps. Apart from speed, the other very critical aspect of a network is the response time. 5G’s response time will be one millisecond in comparison to the existing 45 milliseconds. Such a great speed and low latency will enable movement of the enormous amount of data among the devices at lightning speed. This will pave the way for Artificial Intelligence to come to the centrestage of human life. Internet of Things (IoT), self-driven vehicles, automated production houses, and autonomous monitoring system would need fast and real-time processing of a large amount of data from millions of devices. 5G would provide the basic infrastructure and AI would do the rest. So where is the problem?
China has invested heavily in these two fields – 5G and AI. There are just a few companies in the world that are perfecting the 5G technology – Huawei (China), ZTE (China), Ericson (Sweden) and Nokia (Finland). Surprisingly, there is no American company in the race. Huawei, a frontrunner in the 5G race, was founded by a former PLA officer Ren Zhengfei in 1987, and has been making mobile network equipment for decades. At present, it is selling more smartphones than Apple, second only to Samsung. It has been pouring money into 5G R&D and spent $12 billion in 2017. This was thrice the $4 billion Ericsson spent. Huawei is expected to launch 5G-enabled smartphones by mid-2019 and is launching a 5G testbed in Thailand. Resisting tremendous pressure from its ally, the USA, Thailand is going along with Huawei.
The US fears Huawei’s lead in 5G network. The design of the 5G is such that it will be a surveillance nightmare. As MI6’s head Alex Younger said, “…With 5G, risks will be even bigger because it would be harder to monitor security.” Some 25 billion devices are expected to be connected through a 5G network, at the core of which most of the devices would be from Huawei. A majority of data would be flowing through Huawei devices and the US security establishment fears that China could use these as a backdoor for surveillance purposes. Technically, it will put Huawei in a position to disrupt or even shut down vital communication during future conflicts. Imagine the impact if it is a communication network, power grid, monitoring system or traffic control system.
In 2012, the House Intelligence Committee submitted a report to the US Congress where it concluded that Huawei and ZTE could pose a threat to US national security because of their close ties with the Chinese government. These conclusions were further strengthened when China passed a National Intelligence Law in 2017, that forces every Chinese organisation, “to support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work.” The US fears that during any future conflict, the Chinese Government can ask Huawei to hand over data, access and technology of its equipment being used in the 5G network in the US and its allies. The Trump Administration has banned Huawei equipment in the US and has been urging its allies to do the same. So far, Australia has banned Huawei. UK and Canada are still analysing the situation while British Telecom is removing Huawei equipment from its core 3G/4G networks and will not use Huawei in the 5G network. Huawei has rejected all these charges and has filed a case in Plano, TX challenging the ban as unconstitutional. Huawei blames the Trump administration for protectionism. A ban on Huawei equipment translates to losing contracts worth $100 billion. Huawei also points out to the similar US laws that enable the US government to demand data stored with Microsoft, Amazon and other Cloud providers.
5G will eventually land in the second largest mobile users’ market of the world – India…
Edward Snowden proved to the world that US intelligence agencies are involved in mass surveillance and no one using a smart phone or laptop is beyond their reach, even when the phone or laptop is in turned off condition! They did not even spare German Chancellor Angela Markel and tapped her phone for years. This was being done to have an advantage during the trade talks in particular and global dominance in general. Now when the tables are turned and China is all set to be in a position to do the same, the US is worried.
What we are doing to deal with such threats? 5G will eventually land in the second largest mobile users’ market of the world – India. Will we stop Huawei equipment? If yes, then we will have equipment from some other company. How would we be sure that the equipment used are safe and secure? How will we safeguard our interests? Are we working on any strategy or just waiting for something to happen? We know what happened when North Eastern Power Grid failed in 2012 –the entire North India came to a standstill. Imagine the impact of a similar breakdown of the stock exchange, telecommunication, air traffic control or may be power grid itself- during a conflict situation.
The Swarm is Coming…Silently
Cyberspace, electronic warfare, and espionage are well established aspects of war, but there is one more dangerous technology making its way without getting due attention from our planners – Swarm Drones equipped with Artificial Intelligence. While we are struggling with drones of the size of Rustom. Rustom flew for the first time in 2009, and Rustom-2 first flew with user configuration on February 25, 2018, it is still far from joining the forces. Once in service, it will be utilised in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) roles. Its weaponised version is still a distant dream ands our adversary is busy mastering this new tech. China has been investing heavily in both these fields – AI and Swarm.
UAVs have been in service for over two decades, but the swarm concept is pretty new. It is based on the natural behaviour of honey bees, birds and fishes which move in a swarm. The tiny bit of information collected by each member of swam is shared among other members and it increases the collective information and the situational awareness of the whole swarm manifold. It helps them take a collective decision. Drone swarms work in the same way. Based on their collective information, Artificial Intelligence helps the swarm to take a collective autonomous decision. There is no leader in the swarm and they react to the changing situation or threats as one unit, like a swarm of fishes do while dealing with a predator fish.
The objective of the swarm attack is to send low-cost, small-sized drones that are difficult to detect by both ground-based and air-borne radars. Equipped with operational information, the swarm would be launched, they would manoeuvre as per the threats encountered en route and reach the target area to complete the mission. If a few drones of the swarm become non-functional due to any reason, a few more drones can be made to join the main body to make up the number. In an attack mission, the drones can perform a suicide attack or may drop micro-munition and return home for re-use. It looks like a scenario painted in sci-fi movies, but tomorrow’s battlefield would be exactly the same.
The Main Players
The US and China have been aggressively working on Swarm Drone technology. In January 2017, F-18 fighter jets released over 100 micro drones. Each drone was just 30 centimetres long and they were communicating with each other to make autonomous decisions. In March 2017, in an experiment under the US Marine Corp’s Low-Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology (LOCUST) project, 30 Coyote drones, each weighing around five to six kilogrammes, were launched and monitored by a human operator, but the entire swarm was working autonomously. The US Navy is also working on Unmanned Underwater Vehicles that can travel underwater for thousands of kilometres and can attack to stop or disable 160-feet large vessels. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a project called Hydra. Its objective to develop a network of unmanned underwater payloads and platforms to “serve as a force multiplier, enabling faster, scalable and more cost-effective deployment of assets wherever needed”. These underwater assets would also be in communication with the above water and in the air assets to share information. In a nutshell, we are heading towards a world guarded by unmanned bodies of autonomous sentinels in the air, on the ground and under the sea.
In July 2018, the US Marine Corps conducted a test using 15 drones being operated by a single marine using a tablet and jammed enemy communication successfully…
China is not far behind. Before the First Gulf War (1991), the Chinese strategy was to overwhelm its adversary with sheer numbers. The Gulf War came as a rude shock to the Chinese and caused a paradigm shift in their strategy to make their armed forces a technologically advanced one. Now they are using their age-old strategy in the form of swarm technology – to overwhelm a high value target with a swarm of comparatively cheap, highly advanced, autonomous, scalable and expendable drones. In June 2017, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation conducted a successful flight test where 119 drones completed a number of simulated missions including sub-missions where a number of drones broke away from the main group, completed a sub-task and re-joined the swarm.
In December 2017, at the Global Fortune Forum in Guangzhou, China set the record by showcasing a swarm of 1,108 dronebots. Powered by Artificial Intelligence, each dronebot knew exactly what it was supposed to do and if it failed to perform its part due to any reason, it knew where to land to reach home. In 2017, China also achieved another milestone. Using a high pressure balloon, China launched an experimental drone at a height of 25 kilometres (near space area) and another at nine kilometres. Both drones were launched using an electro-magnetic pulse and attained a high speed of 100kmph almost instantly. In the thin air, both drones flew towards their target around 100 kilometres away, kept adjusting their course and height autonomously without any human intervention and kept sending the data back to base. Yang Yanchu, the lead scientist of the project with the Academy of Optoelectronics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said, “The goal of our research is to launch hundreds of these drones in one shot, like letting loose a bee or ant colony.”
The offensive military implications of this test are enormous. High value assets of the IAF suvh as the IL76 and C17, mid-air refueller IL-78MKI and AWACS fly at a height of 12 to 15 kilometres above mean seal level. Imagine a few small drones launched from different locations hundreds of kilometres away from each other, start approaching one of the IAF’s high value asset. This high value plane is generally escorted by air superiority fighters such as MiG-29 or Su-30MKI and will be flying at around 700-800kmph. At this speed, a human eye will not be able to see a couple of small drones going through the intakes of C17 or IL76 bringing it down. Escorting planes may not even get to know what brought the plane down. If this happens, it will deliver a major blow to morale. That is precisely why the Pakistan Air Force wanted to bring down a Su-30 during the February 27 air skirmishes. And if the enemy is able to bring down an AWACS using a few low-cost drones, it will make a hole in the air defence shield of the country and provide a window to the enemy forces to carry out missions that can change the course of the war.
A similar swarm carrying a small amount of explosives can even disable Air Defence radars making a similar hole. Israel recently has destroyed the Pantsir S1 and S2 air defence systems using an “unknown” weapon. It is believed that Israel used the Harop Kamikaze drones. Pantsir is a formidable short range air defence system and is believed to have been saturated by the Israeli attackers. Same tactics can be used with swarm drones, which will be a very cost effective solution. Britain is already working on using swarm drones to confuse the enemy’s Air Defence radars. British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson recently announced that the government will fund the development of, “…swarm squadrons of network-enabled drones capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defenses,” noting that such vehicles would complement the British fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
A swarm gives tremendous flexibility to the mission commander. The size of the swarm depends on the nature of the mission. Larger the swarm, easier it is to detect. But a larger swarm has its own advantages. If few drones are inactive due to malfunction or enemy action, a greater portion of the swarm would still be able to carry out the mission such as attacking a base or a convoy or forward defended localities. A kamikaze style drone can deliver a payload equivalent to a 40mm grenade. Imagine such a suicidal attack on an airbase packed with different types of aircraft or a communication centre or radar site. The list is endless. The degree of achievement is directly proportional to the imagination and boldness of the mission commander.
The US and China have been aggressively working on Swarm Drone technology…
On the other hand, stealthier missions such as attacking radar sites, AD batteries, airborne targets – fighters, refuellers, cargo planes and AWACSs would require a swarm of relatively lesser number of drones. In the near future, swarm drones would be carrying out electronic warfare missions as well. In July 2018, the US Marine Corps conducted a test using 15 drones being operated by a single marine using a tablet and jammed enemy communication successfully. And this capability of carrying out Electronic Warfare missions will protect the swarm tomorrow. The key technology behind the swarm is the ability of hundreds or thousands of drones to collect information and share it among themselves. Using AI, the cumulative information helps them take autonomous decisions. The key factor is the communication between the drones, but it is their vulnerability as well. The best way to deal with the swarm is to make them blind by disrupting their communication network. Any drone that is not in sync with other drones, may crash into other drones or may keep flying like a blind bird till it is out of power or it may simply return home. It all depends on how it is designed. The very basic nature of the swarm will rule out any impact by conventional weapons (bullet or missile) on a swarm. They will detect the incoming threat and correct their course. Electronic warfare is the most optimal way to deal with this threat. Russians did it in Syria.
In January 2018, 13 drones attacked the Khmeimim air base and a naval facility in Tartus city in Syria. Russians shot down seven of those drones with anti-aircraft missiles and six were taken over by Russian cyber warfare units. But the drones used in the attack were made by insurgents mostly by holding wooden parts together using masking tapes – nothing as hi-tech as those being developed by China or the US. It was easier to detect these homemade drones. Such attacks would be common in regular or urban warfare of the future.
Detecting a swarm of a smaller number of technologically advanced miniature drones would be a challenge. And following the natural evolution cycle, future swarms would be a mixed lot of different types of drones to carry out their specific tasks such as counter-jamming, electronic warfare, communication, surveillance and attack. They would also be communicating with other drones on land, on the sea and underwater – sharing information, correcting their course to avoid the enemy/threat and to finally execute the task.
If the enemy is able to bring down an AWACS using a few low-cost drones, it will make a hole in the air defence shield of the country…
Where Does India Stand?
We are not getting ready to deal with such threats. Our PSUs are working on conventional drones, but the private sector is making good progress on civilian drones of smaller sizes. But the swarm concept had been non-existent until October 2018, when the IAF took the first initiative of its kind in India. The IAF announced a competition where individuals and private companies could compete to build a swarm of 50 drones to be employed in Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief operations. The first three winners would get up to Rs 10 lakh in prizes followed by a co-production opportunity with a Base Repair Depot (BRD) towards a Rs 100 crore order for induction of their developed drone swarms,” an IAF officer said.
It will take time before this initiative starts producing results. On the other hand, there are over 250 government or private drone developers or manufacturers in China. Some are working closely with technical universities and the government. China is investing heavily in Swarm Tech and Artificial Intelligence. With the rapid rate of development and astonishing test results, China appears to be leaving the US behind in this race. It is just a matter of time when it hands over these small low-cost toys to its all-weather friend, Pakistan. Imagine the challenges it will pose to our conventional superiority and our integrated AD shield. The time to get ready for the future is NOW!