(Book Chapter published in The impact of artificial intelligence on strategic stability and nuclear risk volume iii South Asian perspectives edited by Petr Topychkanov. SIPRI. April 2020.
Denuclearization advocacy has gained momentum in justifying global prohibitions on the production, retention or use of nuclear weapons, but has not deterred the quest for development of powerful conventional weapons that may perhaps cause as much damage as the primitive atomic bomb, though without its radiation effects. Nor has it deterred the quest to incorporate emerging technologies into nuclear arsenals to make them safer and more reliable to operate. In the context of denuclearization, it is just as important to scrutinize developments in conventional weapons lest such developments lead to massive damage to humankind and nature.
The last couple of years have seen unprecedented advances in technologies that in times of war would have an impact upon the world as a whole. Such technologies are now within reach of many nations, including India, and allow a nation to sidestep the nuclear option and its attendant radiation fallout while causing just as much devastation to the adversary. This chapter focuses first on technologies that may affect how warfare is conducted in future and then looks at India’s application of these and other technologies to enhance its conventional military capabilities.
I. Technologies that may change future wars
The study of synthesis and fabrication of energetic materials or composites at nano-level is known as nano-energetics. Examples of nano-energetic materials (nEMs) are metal oxides such as aluminium–copper(II) oxide and metal–metal composites such as aluminium–titanium
). In the near future, nEMs may form the backbone of military systems. Induction of nano-enabled energetic systems with controlled energy release is the focus of current research at institutes like the US Naval Academy, Naval Surface Warfare Center and the University of Maryland.
In simple terms, nEMs perform better than conventional materials because of their much larger surface area, which increases the speed of reaction and enables a larger energy release in a much shorter time. A heterogeneous mixture of a metal (fuel like aluminium) and a metal oxide (oxidiser like molybdenum oxide), both having nanoscale dimensions, results in a class of high reaction rate metastable intermolecular composite called nano-thermite or super-thermite. Aluminium–molybdenum oxide, aluminium–Teflon and aluminium–copper(II) oxide have been researched for military use. The addition of super-thermites (nano-aluminium based) to existing compositions has shown an immediate increase in explosive power
of. The use of nano-sized materials in explosives has increased safety and insensitivity by as much as over 30 per cent without affecting reactivity. It is predicted that nEMs would provide the same explosive power at mass up to two orders of magnitude less than current explosive systems. While nano-sizing of high explosives leads to increasing their explosive power and decreasing their sensitivity to external forces, it also decreases their thermal stability. The shelf life of such explosives could, therefore, be reduced; however, some patents reveal that this issue has also been resolved technically.
It is expected that nEMs will replace conventional explosives and provide existing conventional weapons with explosive powers higher in magnitude by a factor of two, with enhanced safety because of lower sensitivity to external stimulation by at least 30 per cent. Further, research at the University of Texas in 2012 established that nEMs could be encapsulated in integrated microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), which include microelectronic controlling, sensing, diagnostics and processing ICs. Application-specific thrust impulses, thrust-vectoring and continuous thrust can be ensured by micro-thrusters and their arrays.
New classes of extremely precise and lethal small/micro weapons systems are already in development. These systems have been scaled down by at least two orders of magnitude from current systems, creating space for the possible paradigm shift from bigger and fewer to smaller and numerous holdings of weapons. This advance heralds the era of ‘swarm warfare’ – that is, assault by drone swarms ‘made up of cooperative, autonomous robots that react to the battlefield as one’. Drone swarms armed with nano-energetic warheads as well as other nEMs-integrated MEMS can be deployed in a multitude of missions like strike, jamming, reconnaissance and saturation assault.
As regards swarming, artificial intelligence (AI) has achieved demonstrable success. For example, one research group has developed ‘swarm-enabling technology for multi-robot systems’ that exhibits behaviours that include perimeter defence, aggregation, leader–follower, search and exploration, and heading consensus. The technology was ‘achieved by combining a modular and transferable software toolbox with a hardware suite composed of a collection of low-cost and off-the-shelf components’ and is designed to be ‘ported to a relatively vast range of robotic platforms—such as land and surface vehicles—with minimal changes and high levels of scalability’. This low-budget, scalable approach makes swarm warfare accessible and adaptable to a number of military situations.
Swarm warfare could be as devastating and damaging as a nuclear weapon onslaught but without the radiation hazard, and could displace tactical nuclear weapons from the battlefield. These smart, precise and lethal weapons have emerged in a grey zone between conventional and nuclear options. As such they pose a danger that needs debate and scrutiny.
Nanotechnologies for improved sensors
Sensor technologies are another area in which AI and nanotechnologies are converging, with possible military applications. For example, ‘theoretical and computational modelling already use algorithms to depict the ideal structure of a material, determine its energy and properties, and its interaction in different environments’ so it is a ‘natural progression’ to enhance this modelling with AI. Another example is scanning probe microscopy, used for imaging and measuring nanoscale surfaces at atomic height or to manipulate atoms and molecules, although it has traditionally suffered from resolution issues. AI in the form of advanced neural networks ‘leads to a much more efficient imaging system’.
The ongoing quest to develop very low-yield nuclear explosives that could be used as controlled micro explosion sources for nuclear bombs as well as weapons, if compact fusing mechanisms were available, received a further impetus when it was found that it was more practical to design a micro-fusion explosive than a micro-fission device. Currently, this research forms the main thrust area at nuclear weapons laboratories in the United States and France.
The nuclear weapons package includes the fission/fusion material which is enriched in a sophisticated process but requires highly complex initiating components such as arming and safety devices, ancillaries for fusing and initiating a nuclear reaction. These should be controllable, safe and remain extremely reliable till the last possible moment of political decision making (possibly with the incorporation of AI, even after launch and up to the last instant of reaching and hitting the target). These critical criteria favour use of least failure, redundant devices incorporating nanotechnology and MEMS. The explosive train of a nuclear warhead contains an insensitive high explosive (IHE) that is initiated by a small sensitive initiator. These are kept misaligned before arming as a safety precaution and are aligned with IHE using an N/MEMS device. There are many IHEs in a nuclear warhead that are brought into alignment by as many N/MEMS devices and individual detonators. These devices thus form a critical component of the safety and reliability chain in nuclear weapons. Nanotechnology is being increasingly used in better materials for capacitors, ICs, high accelerations and temperature resistant components, which together further enhance the possibility of greater safety and therefore new utility roles for nuclear weapons in the military.
Sandia National Laboratories has the credit of building the most complicated nuclear safety mechanism called the ‘Micro Guardian’ and its upgrades. This mechanism ensures that the nuclear weapon does not detonate until a predefined sequence of events is complete. The availability of such devices and the fact that they have improved the resistance to failure of critical components in fusing, arming, detonators and neutron generators by many magnitudes have spurred research into the next generation of fusion-based nuclear weapons.
These devices (IHE+N/MEMS initiators+ tiny amounts of fission material) would not weigh more than a few kilograms, and the output could be equivalent to TNT from fractions of a tonne to tens of tonnes. When used as bombs, they fall well within the kilotonne to megatonne limits of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and they also do not come under the treaty’s ‘no first use’ restrictions. They use fission material in tiny quantities, thus resulting in negligible radioactive fallout.
Such warheads are being considered for use in precision guided munitions. Currently, there is no mechanism in place that restricts using nanotechnology to this end. The possessor of such weapons would be not only able to unleash a swarm of conventional weapons but also carry out a devastating assault without breaching the taboo of the first strike.
The above discussion has shown how emerging technologies like nanotechnology in tandem with AI are reshaping the landscape of conventional weapons and making them nearly as devastating as nuclear weapons, albeit without the ravaging onslaught of radiation hazards.
National investment in emerging technologies
The Government of India has appreciated that nanotechnology is ‘a knowledge-intensive and “enabling technology” which is expected to influence a wide range of products and processes with far-reaching implications for national economy and development’. Accordingly, a Mission on Nano Science and Technology (Nano Mission) was launched in May 2007, with the Department of Science and Technology as the nodal agency for implementing the Nano Mission.
India has also initiated development in the field of AI through the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), which is a policy think tank formed on 1 January 2015 subsequent to the scrapping of the Planning Commission of India. The NITI Aayog’s discussion paper on India’s national strategy for AI recognised that AI has the potential to be disruptive but that it also ‘presents opportunities to complement and supplement human intelligence and enrich the way people live and work’.
India has also allocated 3073 crore rupees ($461.94 million at current rates) in 2018 for its Digital India program, which is an initiative to promote AI, machine learning, 3D printing and other digital technologies.
The strategic implications of AI from the perspective of national security have been studied by an AI task force comprised of multiple stakeholders including the government, services, academia, industry, professionals and start-ups. The task force looked at AI development in India generally but also specifically in the context of defence needs. Its final report made a number of recommendations, including that (a) India should become ‘a significant power of AI in defence’ especially in ‘aviation, naval, land systems, cyber, nuclear, and biological warfare’, including both defensive and offensive needs including counter AI needs; (b) specific policy and institutional interventions are required to ‘regulate and encourage robust AI-based technologies for defence sector’; and (c) the government should work with start-ups and commercial industry on using AI ‘for defence purposes’. The task force also considered AI in relation to lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) for air, ground and underwater for both human-in-the-loop and human-on-the-loop scenarios; simulated war games and training – a key area where AI can play a crucial role in training the forces in a simulated environment; unmanned surveillance; cybersecurity; intelligence and reconnaissance; and aerospace security.
The Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), located within the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in India, researches specific areas of AI for the defence forces. Some projects include: (a) multipurpose robots ‘including industrial grade capability robots and futuristic research oriented robotic platforms’; (b) a comprehensive data-mining toolbox containing data-mining algorithms, for use ‘in different problem spaces’; (c) a decision support system (DSS) framework, which is ‘completely driven by knowledge base maintained as ontologies’ and includes algorithms like Multi Criteria Decision Making (MCDM), swarm algorithms, game theoretic approaches towards resource allocation, and search algorithms; (d) a semantically enabled service-oriented architectural framework; and (e) AI algorithms for path planning, simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), object detection and recognition, and task coordination for mobile platforms.
India faces two neighbours with unresolved border issues and an active insurgency in many districts which has put its military and paramilitary forces under a veil of constant threat. There is thus a need for India to develop weapons to defend its vast land border, coastline and assets in space with minimal risk to its forces. This could be achieved by using robotic sentinels that can respond effectively and neutralize the arising threats – a kind of lethal autonomous weapon system (LAWS). India has stressed the fact that technology such as that being developed for LAWS has both peaceful and military uses.
Robotic sentinels already in existence include the SGR-A1 robots, developed jointly by Samsung Techwin and Korea University, which can automatically detect intruders walking over the border and could technically fire without the help of a human; and the Super aEgis II developed by South Korean firm DoDAAM, which is an automated turret originally designed with an auto firing system. A robotic sentinel under development by Kalashnikov as one of ‘a range of products based on neural networks’ is a ‘fully automated combat module’ that can identify and shoot at its targets.
The above discussion has highlighted the aspects of nanotechnology and AI research and development that directly impinge upon the war-waging capability of nations. It shows that it will soon be feasible to deploy a conventional bomb with a nEM warhead, or to engage in swarm warfare, both of which can cause devastating damage of the proportions of a primitive atomic bomb without the accompanying radiation. The collaborative nature of scientific studies and experimentation permits sharing of knowledge and thus leads to a larger proliferation of conventional weapon technologies. There is thus a need to study current technological developments in conventional weapons and to consider instituting international safeguards to cover developments that have massive damage potential.
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