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What India’s military commentators don’t get about drones — AI can’t just be unboxed and used

Lt Gen H.S. Panag (retd) lamented India’s lack of drones when China and Pakistan already have it. But AI can’t just be deployed in a battlefield.

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Retired Lt Gen. H.S. Panag’s article — ‘High-tech drones could have neutralised Chinese intrusions at LAC’ — is unexceptionable in its lament. Only, it is more eloquent in what it fails to say than in what it does. The article, while critiquing the Indian Army’s neglect of a powerful piece of battlefield technology, echoes the very misperceptions that prevent the Army from embracing technology in any meaningful way.

It appears that when the Army’s institutional brain thinks of technological advancement, it imagines a patchwork of the latest battlefield systems that can easily be unpacked and deployed in battle. These systems are expected to be delivered by a manufacturer, foreign or domestic, in a ready-to-use condition. All that the Army would need to do is train its personnel in the system’s operation and maintenance.

That is simply not how technology works. Not anymore. Let’s take a closer look at the drone technology that the article speaks about to understand why this is so. Lt Gen. Panag presupposes – correctly – that any large-scale use of drones will be AI or Artificial Intelligence-enabled.

The question he does not ask is this: Where will this AI come from? Talking of which, what is AI?

Also read: High-tech drones could have neutralised Chinese intrusions at LAC but India didn’t have them

AI needs continuous data

AI is not a fully functional artificial brain that can be implanted into any system. It is a computer programme that must be trained on massive amounts of relevant data: millions of visual, acoustic, electronic, thermal signatures of enemy entities, terrain and meteorology data of potential battlefields and the like. This data will run into terabytes and cannot be summoned by fiat. It is specific to different battlefield conditions, and must be painstakingly collected over time, analysed and labelled, made machine-readable and then carefully introduced with a substantial margin for error.

For perspective, look at the development of autonomous driving systems. Even in advanced countries with orderly traffic conditions, fully autonomous systems have not been deployed because the variables are far too numerous for the AI engine to handle. A battlefield would be messier by many orders of magnitude.

Then, after the AI has been ‘trained’ and deployed, the data received from operational platforms on the battlefield will need to be fed back into the same AI for it to sharpen itself by correcting its own errors and biases. That cannot be done manually, by staff officers scribbling away in their notepads and hopping around to put pins and ribbons on giant, wall-sized maps.

Also read: Indian Army’s orthodox doctrine distorts military strategy in Ladakh-type conflicts: Study

Tech is not an event, it’s a process

Where, then, will all this data come from for ‘creating’ the battlefield AI?

The obvious backward induction leads us to a fully networked battlefield management system, ready to take advantage of even newer developments like the Internet of Things (IoT). Remember the news reports about China laying fibre optic cables right up to its forward defences? China reportedly refuted the claims. But the cables were probably not meant for late-night calls back home.

Armies with ambitions of fighting modern wars against capable adversaries have such systems. The Indian Army doesn’t. It had one under development for a long time, but it was shelved sometime in 2018. No future plans have been heard of.

There are no apparent signs within the Army of an understanding that deployment of high technology is not an event. It is a process of incredible complexity requiring perseverance and genuine intent. The leadership of an organisation needs to be mentally and intellectually geared towards the very inception and development of this process, not merely its adoption. Consultants and other external agencies are only enablers on the road to tech nirvana; they can’t get you there by themselves.

Such a technological transformation would straddle both war and peace. After all, it is the same organisation that trains in peace and fights in war, with significant overlap between both. It cannot be communicating through reams of paper produced by hordes of clerks, signing documents in triplicate and pentaplicate in peace and hoping all the time to transform into a fully networked fighting machine in war.

Also read: India’s electronic warfare units are archaic, but camouflage, concealment can blunt PLA

More than a stopgap

This process of transformation to an AI-driver military can only happen if it is a command function in the true sense. Delegating it to some obscure directorate whose director general is just one more voice in the wilderness will help no one. Ergo, the senior-most commanders will need to drive it.

When might that happen? That is anybody’s guess. Right now, even relatively junior officers at the unit level have little exposure to, or understanding of, technology at the organisational scale. The senior ones, steeped in practices of the past and quite self-satisfied, are probably located further behind on the curve.

The starting points on this technological journey could probably be education and humility.

So, while the Army should by all means go ahead and deploy high-tech drones on a turbulent border, no one should imagine it will be a step towards creating a high-tech army. It should be seen for what it is – a desperate stopgap with very limited meaning in the Army’s evolutionary perspective.

Technological change for a massive army is nowhere akin to buying swanky gadgets, unpacking them and clicking away with abandon. It is a long-drawn, super high stakes battle in itself. The Indian Army seems to have lost much time and ground in this battle. Hopefully, recent developments will provide some impetus for it to get moving.

The author served in the Armoured Corps of the Indian Army for two decades, and is now a supply chain professional in the e-commerce industry. Views are personal.

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  1. The armed forces and the entire Ministry of Defense needs to be overhauled. Too much dependence on PSU like HAL and OFB which don’t deliver on time or innovate 30-40 years too late
    The Indian private industry can create and innovate drone technology with subsidies from the center. Then the armed forces can competitively induct these. But there needs to massive mindset change in the Indian Military and MoD bureaucracy.

  2. You are looking at Drones exclusively from an AI perspective. But, drones are already being used in Kasmir for remote surveillance driven by human operators.

    (For that matter, drone enthusiasts do not use AI for operating their drones)

    That was probably what the good general meant.

    Remote surveillance would have enabled a faster response and possibly neutralized the element of surprise.

    While your post is well researched and well written, dogmatic statements would do you no credit.

    Also, try and remember that most plans of modernization and procurement will by their nature remain under wraps usually till after the fact.

  3. MEthinks the reality lies somewhere in between what the author and Ramandeep Bajwa state. AI is to be programmed into the drone, yes. The drone is sold complete with AI by the vendor, yes. But the vendor does not have access to the Ladakhi conditions. While the drone will perform well over Tilpat ranges and IAF and the Army Aviation wallas will quite happily buy the drone, over Ladakh/ Skardu, the drone may NOT function at all well. Ramandeep needs to be reminded that both Houthis and the ISIS used the drones in dry, almost flatland scenarios.
    So there. The situation on ground is complex, a BIG YESS!Lots of signals/EME youngsters will have to burn the midnight oil that too in Ladakh or on the Glacier before anything deters the PLA actually.

  4. Brilliantly articulated.

    When I read that the military is acquiring disparate systems from Russia, France, US, Isreal etc, you always wonder how they integrate.

    Just because of this antiquated approach, we are paying too dollar for hardware and continue to remain a generation and a half behind our adversaries.

    Military needs to engage start-ups urgently and on an ongoing basis.

  5. Interesting hypothesis and correct in large parts. But like what it says about Gen Panag’s comment being,… “more eloquent in what it fails to say than in what it does.”, the same is probably true about the article itself.
    Rather than blaming the Indian Army for the lapses, it remains eloquently silent about the actual problem and its reasons for being.
    The Army is hamstrung by the MoD. One Chief famously said at the height of the Kargil war, that we will fight with what we have.
    Nearer in time, we had our beloved PM berating the Army Commanders for asking money for modernisation, saying that war is not going to happen, why are you asking for more money?
    Two successive Defence Ministers turned Finance Ministers have effectively starved the Defence Forces of all funds and capped modernisation and all ongoing projects. The author briefly alludes to the Battlefield Management System shelved in 2018, there would be many others not in the public domain, including some dealing with AI.

    That is the basic reason why Indian Armed Forces are in a bind. The Defence Secretary, whose responsibility is the Defence of the realm, is not accountable for his inactions., but contrary to all logic, holds sway over all items to be introduced into the Army. The Army has no say whatsoever except to rubber stamp what the MoD wisemen want. Until and unless this changes, and the Armed Forces are reinstalled as part of the government of India, nothing will happen.

  6. Drone warfare isn’t as complicated as the author is making it out to be. Most drones either carry weapons like missiles and bombs or are weapons themselves. They are launched into the battlefield and either they pick targets themselves and attack them or targets are spotted for them and weapons released from a remote location by humans in the loop. If drone warfare was so complicated it would have been very difficult for jihadis to use them, which they have done successfully in Syria, Libya and recently in Afghanistan. All you need is to train your personnel and that’s about it, the drone will do the rest. It will fly over enemy territory and will pick up targets and attack them. It is as simple as that.
    The following passage isn’t true and it isn’t as complicated as the author has made out it to be:
    “It is a computer programme that must be trained on massive amounts of relevant data: millions of visual, acoustic, electronic, thermal signatures of enemy entities, terrain and meteorology data of potential battlefields and the like. This data will run into terabytes and cannot be summoned by fiat. It is specific to different battlefield conditions, and must be painstakingly collected over time, analysed and labelled, made machine-readable and then carefully introduced with a substantial margin for error.”

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