The thousand light drones that danced in the Delhi sky and created a variety of images of national symbols during the Beating Retreat ceremony on 29 January 2022 virtually stole the show despite stiff competition from other newly introduced performances like the laser show. It was showcased as signifying the success of the ‘Make in India’ initiative that involved the private sector entity BotLab Dynamics, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and the Department of Science and Technology.
The run-up to the drone show was accompanied by official statements that India is the fourth country to join the unique club that formerly consisted of the UK, Russia, and China. The attempt was to conflate the indigenous capability that the light drones displayed with India’s military might. The fact is that the capability to conduct light shows through drones vis-a-vis putting drones to military use would tantamount to slanting the narrative of drones in warfare.
Light drone shows are common
The drones that fly in formation in a light show are controlled by a ground station and follow pre-programmed and mapped flight paths to create images in the sky. It has been erroneously labelled as a swarm that is essentially decentralised and relies on Artificial Intelligence (AI). The light show drones are bereft of artificial intelligence. In a swarm, drones fly autonomously and maintain their formation like a flock of birds by following a set of rules. Loss of radio communication would collapse the light show while a swarm requiring minimal radio communications cannot easily be jammed.
Mass deployment of drones to create images in the night sky has increasingly become the staple of major ceremonial events. The Guinness World Record for the maximum number of drones in a light show was held by a Chinese company when 3,281 drones were displayed in Shanghai in May 2021 as part of Hyundai’s launch of its automotive venture. The initiator of the drone light was Intel, which had launched a hundred drones in 2016.
As far as drone light shows are concerned, one can visualise its advent in all major national functions and could well replace to some extent celebratory fireworks being climate-friendly though it is not cost-friendly as yet. Drones have already made their entrance into marriage photography. Soon, we could be watching drone light shows at Indian weddings.
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Military’s interest is elsewhere
Drone swarms that cannot be jammed are of special interest to the military and have been the focus of research and development in the US, China, Russia, and India. Drone warfare was initially utilised by the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and also by the Israelis in the Middle East. In 2020, drone warfare received a fillip through its successful utilisation by Azerbaijan during its conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Recently, Iranian drones were employed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The deployed systems have so far remained semi-autonomous and the jury is still out whether it will be possible to develop fully autonomous weapons systems. The difficulty stems from the feasibility of developing algorithms that can read the changing dynamics of the battlefield.
The Indian Army displayed its progress in the domain during the Army Day Parade in January 2021. The demonstration comprised 75 drones including mother drones that released smaller drones, which carried out a simulated kamikaze attack on different types of targets ranging from tanks to radar facilities and had a range of 50 kilometres. The quadcopter drones also displayed multiple payload capacities including logistic delivery potential. The Army announced its intention to scale up the swarm strength to a thousand. It described the indigenous development as belonging to the genre of ‘disruptive technologies’.
In warfare, disruptive technologies are innovations that alter the methods of force application and replace prevailing norms to achieve significantly better military effectiveness. The advent of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) is a prime example. However, since military technology is contestable between adversaries, the advantage gained can be neutralised by countermeasures or evaded through changes in operational practices. It is a perennial cat-and-mouse game and the attempt to keep ahead drives the urge for superior technology which also fuels arms races among nations.
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Innovation needs money, private sector
The success of the Indian Army in developing Kamikaze drone systems through civil-military fusion should provoke our strategic planners to find ways and means to do enough to develop other disruptive technologies by unleashing the potential that lies in the realm of the private sector, better described as the ‘Start Up India’. Disruptive technologies require the enthusiasm of youth to explore beyond the envelope, the guidance of mentors and the availability of financial support.
There is a large segment of Indian youth whose enthusiasm is not in doubt but who are unable to realise their ideas because of lack of finances. The problem is known to the government and several schemes to deal with it have been initiated. In defence, the flagship scheme Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) was inaugurated by the Prime Minister during DefExpo 2018.
The iDEX scheme has a financial outlay of Rs 498.18 crore for the period 2021-21 to 2024-25 and is expected to provide financial support to 300 startups/MSMEs/individual innovators and about 20 partner incubators. The per capita amount could approximate to less than Rs 15-20 lakh per year and is expected to supply the military with innovative and ingenious technological solutions. Such amounts are unlikely to deliver disruptive technologies.
An examination of the iDEX scheme leaves one with the impression that the good intentions of the scheme will be throttled by procedural hurdles, mainly in the form of oversight and financial control resting with the Department of Defence Production. To expect that innovations will flower in the soil of government procedures that masquerade as safety nets for minimising irrecoverable financial loss could result in stifling the very innovation that one is wanting to promote.
Innovation efforts mostly lie along slippery roads of failures that is still worth pursuing because even a few spectacular successes can result in military pay-offs that cannot easily be prejudged by governmental oversight and strict control of financial support. The imperative is to unshackle the scheme from the prevailing norms of government procedures and replace them with corporate practices that allow for freedom to create despite some losses and also provide for maximum latitude to direct finances as required by the innovators. The paper that explains the scheme is steeped in bureaucratic control that is best avoided.
Political intervention will be required to reconfigure the iDEX scheme, increase its financial allocation and place it in the hands of technologists, scientists, military leaders and other experts within entities that do not have to conform to bureaucratic norms that cannot possibly serve the innovative spirit. The success achieved in small drones must spur the change as in both cases the startups were not too much encumbered with the stifling provisions of governmental procedures.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)