33. Preparing for Warfare of Tomorrow- What India can Aspire for in Unmanned Systems and Cyber Warfare

(Published India Strategic, 20 Jan 2014)

“We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken—you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

—President Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009


The current approach to the US national security relies on technological superiority over the adversaries and not on overwhelming numbers of weaponry, as was the case during WW II. Technology is thus the core and integral aspect of US national security. Technology is integral to war fighting, be it the weapon, C4ISR, Logistics or counter measures and its superiority assists in much quicker overpowering of the adversary. Inferring from the above a technology acquired/ developed by an adversary or ability to acquire it also becomes a national security issue for a government, this in turn must propel the science and technology policy to invest in military R&D. Emerging technologies with military uses should therefore continue to remain in forefront of issues affecting national security. Developing technologies to meet a nation’s national security environment would be a complex process involving basic research, applied research, and development of useful products, which aid in national security. This therefore envelops the much larger canvas of institutions and production agencies in the civilian sector. A country would perforce have to seek technologies in the civilian realm if they are befitting goals in the national security domain. The investment in science and technology has to be structured to meet the needs that may fructify in the civil sector as well.

Two clear examples of dual use technologies are cell phones and drones, which have been developed in civil and military sectors but have tremendous cross applications. Two important issues in harnessing civil technological advances in to defense domain are firstly, the requirements of rapid prototyping & development since the requirement is to achieve superiority and advantage over the adversary  who may also be close to deploying the same. Secondly, there may be quick changes in warfare techniques and or unknown developments of emerging technologies leading to changes in military technology; a recent example is the induction of weaponised UAVs, which are operated from thousands of miles away. The unmanned vehicles have unleashed a plethora of technology related innovations and inventions. This article would highlight the cross-domain use of information technology (IT) as also areas in which India can achieve appreciable leads due to its competence in developing software applications.

IT has its moorings in doubling of computing power practically every two years and its wide accessibility in the civil zone, leading to development of more and more applications. Connectivity of the computers over wide swaths through advances in communication systems has ensured wide and interconnected usage of computing devices by the public. Mobile phones, smart phones, tablets, phablets and wearables, have revolutionized the way common person communicates with the world. Sensors and networks (including wifi) are distributed over large areas. The requirement of computing power on demand has led to the popularity of the cloud computing by conglomerates and industrial houses. Embedded computing systems are found in cars, and household appliances.

The military use of IT applications ranges from the commercially available applications useful in logistics and administration to very specifically designed ones for e.g. C4ISR, propulsion, fire control and navigation. Processing of information is the backbone of all military operations today. Smart missiles, projectiles, and bombs are guided using IT up to the last phase to the target including the arming and precise moment of explosion, increasing the hit probability tremendously. This not only effects a huge reduction in the number of munitions required but also in the limits collateral damage afflicted around the target. Net work centric operations are the flavor of the day, they enable remarkable synergetic of application of force on the enemy (while keeping own forces dispersed) and transparency of the battlefield. Intelligence gathering, collation and processing leads to correct and timely action as well as reliable prediction of events. With multitude of sensors, operating in close vicinity, it is now feasible to reconstruct a picture even if the main source is rendered defective or inoperable. Increasingly IT is finding applications in behavioral sciences where in computers infer from the gestures or activity of the user as to how the user is likely to behave in a given situation in future. Training is increasingly becoming simulation centric to train a soldier in near war like situations and allows war-gaming to see the efficacy of various possible options in a built up scenario.

The most important and rapidly evolving military applications of IT are unmanned systems and cyber weapons.

Unmanned Systems

Unmanned systems, with varying degrees of autonomy, are replacing humans at an alarming rate to day, be it in common industrial applications or sophisticated surgical procedures, the dependence on such systems is increasing exponentially because they reduce margin of human errors, operate over prolonged periods of time, release manpower for more important tasks and so on. An unmanned system comprises of a computer-based device interacting with physical systems using sensors and actuators. Thus, IT and technology of sensors and actuators form the core of unmanned systems. Software design for such systems is complex as all situations that the unmanned system may encounter have to be anticipated and actions detailed so that such a system may function as designed. Debugging and making the software glitch free is very difficult therefore, utmost care is required during design stage itself. With the price reductions in processors, sensors and actuators, such devices have become popular as robotic cleaning devices, explosive/ bomb disposal, remotely piloted vehicles, dispensers etc.

The military applications have arisen from the fact that such systems can carry out dirty, dangerous, mundane, and tedious tasks and free soldiers for other important tasks as well as reduce causalities. The unmanned systems are being used for long duration surveillance and reconnaissance in air, on land and beneath the sea. They are also increasingly used in patrolling, human controlled lethal operations, etc. The best example of human controlled lethal unmanned system is the Predator UAV, which has been extensively used, in global war on terror. Examples of lethal unmanned systems which function without human intervention on enabling, are; SWORDS which carries M249/240 machine guns and iRobot which is equipped with MetalStorm grenade launching system and Packbots which can Taser enemy soldiers.

The applicability of fully unmanned systems to nuclear weapons has not found supporters despite the fact that automated sensors could provide data about the launch of first strike/first use, which in turn could enable launch of nuclear missiles. The ‘Launch on warning’ strategy without human control is considered too dangerous to be incorporated.

The fully unmanned systems also suffer from the fact that despite rigorous software development for these complex systems, they are not completely dependable under all types of situations that may be encountered. The present state of software certification cannot systematically check for all the vulnerabilities. The solution to this problem may lie in advances in an unlikely area, that of ‘neurosciences’. The understanding of cognitive processes of the human mind could lead to changes in tackling computer decision making with direct applications in target detection and identification. This is an area where India can comfortably build expertise.

Cyber Weapons

Degrading or even destroying adversary’s information networks and IT systems is carried out by cyber weapons utilizing IT. These weapons thrive on the fact they can be developed and deployed in a relatively easy manner, virtually from a garage, using existing software and hardware that does not require large work force, investment, or development cycles. The targets of cyber weapons are huge and complex systems having larger failure modes and under fortified weak nodes. Some examples include networks for communication, power distribution, road, rail and air traffic etc. Precise targeting of a particular system is more difficult as much more background information would be required for hitting the vulnerabilities.

Military applications include; obtaining information from adversary’s IT system; degrading integrity of the IT system; IT service denial and cyber forgery (authentication). Cyber weapons may target the computers or the physical devices that are operable from those computers. They can cause a temporary or a permanent damage or can lead to the owner’s lack of faith in an IT system’s reliability. On the horizon are the Botnets, which are interconnected programs, communicating over, generally, internet relay channels (IRC). After compromising a computer’s security system through malware, the control of the computer is held by a third party who can decide to operate it as per his will. The number of computers, which can be connected and operated in this manner, can be in thousands if not more. These can be used for service denial, corruption of information, forgery, or spying. The ultimate cyber weapon that can be developed would take birth with the advent of the ‘prime factoring quantum computer’. Today it is estimated that it would take a supercomputer longer then the age of the universe to decrypt the military grade 512 bit encryption, however with the ‘quantum computer’ it would be possible to decrypt any type of encryption in vogue today, in a matter of seconds. This would provide information and cyber dominance of unprecedented proportions to the holder of this technology.

In conclusion, it can be seen that preparing for warfare of tomorrow would require a synergetic multi-disciplinary approach across the civilian and military domains. Two areas, which hold great promise for India, lie in software developments using insight in to cognitive processes for unmanned systems and in development of the ‘quantum computer for the cyber and information dominance.

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