India needs to bridge the widening AI gap with China before it’s too late

India and China held the 13 th Corps Commander level talks on the Ladakh stand-off on 10 October, 2021. The meeting, which started at 10.30...

India and China held the 13th Corps Commander level talks on the Ladakh stand-off on 10 October, 2021. The meeting, which started at 10.30 am, lasted for around eight-and-a-half hours and concluded at 7 pm. During the meeting the discussions between the two sides focused on resolution of the remaining issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.

The Indian side pointed out that the situation has been created by China violating the bilateral agreements. The Chinese side was not agreeable and could not provide any forward-looking proposals. As a matter of fact, there has been a build-up of Chinese forces along the LAC, compelling India to undertake suitable defensive measures.

Also read: India lags behind China in artificial intelligence by a decade, may slip towards digital colonisation

China is using artificial intelligence (AI) in eastern Ladakh to strengthen its capabilities. 

China and AI

Of late the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been focusing on Multi Domain Warfare. Multi Domain Warfare is primarily based on AI and Quantum Communications. China is leaving no stone unturned to be a front-runner in this field and is procuring a host of AI equipment.

A few aspects of Chinese AI are as enumerated:

  • Chinese military leaders are already procuring AI-related systems and equipment for intelligentised warfare.
  • It is likely that the PLA spends more than $1.6 billion each year on AI-related systems and equipment.
  • PLA hopes to use AI to generate asymmetric advantages vis-à-vis its adversaries.
  • China is heavily investing in AI with an aggressive push in the military domain. It exports armed autonomous platforms to numerous countries, mainly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. China has been experimenting and developing UGVs, UAVs, AI-enabled satellites, UUVs and unmanned Ground warfare platforms. They have converted T59 tanks into unmanned platforms. They are using their UUVs in the South China Sea.
  • China has moved AI into new domains of Space Warfare and Information Warfare using a plethora of devices. They have developed satellites with AI having the capability to destroy satellites and other missiles in outer space. China has left no stone unturned to fine-tune its missiles to attain fire and forget capabilities as also if the need arises to change targets in flight. The country is making great strides in the employment of UAV Swarms. Often, they have demonstrated more than 1,000 drones moving in a synchronised manner to undertake a variety of tasks. It is amazing to watch the enthusiasm with which China is going ahead with this aspect and in all probability is assisting Pakistan to attain this capability.
  • There is no doubt that no country in the world is focusing on AI as much as China. In terms of finance, China spends nine times more than India on AI. It has seven times more manpower than India on AI. Further its robot density surpassed the world average in 2017 and 2018. The focus is gradually being upgraded to the Cognitive Domain for usage of AI in Command Control Communications Computers Information Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4 I2SR). China is using AI in the cyber domain and undertaking numerous cyber developments in offensive and defensive operations. China is only second to the United States. An estimate of the number of end user industrial robots; China has 154 end user robots vis-à-vis 55 of Japan, 40 of the US and 4 of India. The day is not far when combat robots will be participating in logistics and thereafter in operations. We have to traverse a long way to stand up to China’s challenge.

Indian Perspective

Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have a specialised laboratory, Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR), with about 150 scientists which focus on AI Robotics, Control Systems, Command Control Communications and Intelligence (C3 I), Networking and Communications Secrecy. It has produced a family of robots for surveillance and reconnaissance applications. The robot has been named RoboSen, a mobile robot for reconnaissance and surveillance.

Further, there’s a miniaturised man portable UGV for low intensity conflicts, a wall climbing flapping wing robot and a walking robot with four and six legs for logistics support. They have developed robots with cognitive capabilities which can play chess and inspect the serviceability of components. They have also developed an intelligent wheel-chair for physically challenged persons. CAIR has also developed a Net Work Traffic Analysis (NETRA) which can monitor Internet traffic. This device can intercept key words such as bomb blast, kill and others in real time.

AI has also attracted the Government of India and in this context a report was submitted by Tata Sons chairman N Chandrasekaran in 2018 to the Ministry of Defence. Based on the recommendations of the Task Force, the Department of Defence Production issued a government order on 8 February 2019 that listed the following:

  • Formation of Defence AI Council (DAIC) was constituted with the Defence Minister as chairman. It included the three Service Chiefs, the Defence Secretary, Secretary of Defence Production, Secretary of DRDO, Financial Adviser of Defence Services, National Cyber Security coordinator and eminent representatives from the industry and the academia. The Council would meet twice a year to provide strategic direction towards AI-driven transformation in defence, and provide guidance in addressing issues related to data sharing. It would also enable strategic partnership with industry, decide acquisitions of technology, review ethical, and safe and privacy assured usage of AI in defence. Also, it would further set policies in partnership with government institutions and industries.
  • A Defence AI Project Agency (DAIPA) will also be established with the Secretary of Defence Production as the chairman. The other members will be from the Service Headquarters, Headquarters of Integrated Defence Staff, Defence Public Sector units, DRDO, industry and academia.
  • Each Service Headquarters has been directed to earmark Rs 100 crore for AI-specific application development for the next five years
  • The Indian Navy has taken the lead and has divided AI usage into short, medium and long-term goals for implementation.
  • The Indian Army during the Army Day in 2021 demonstrated a Swarm Attack by drones on multiple targets. Further efforts are being made to directly translate spoken Mandarin to English.
  • In a recent webinar held at Vivekananda International Foundation the Chief of Defence Staff spoke of usage of AI for predictive maintenance of equipment in the Indian Army.

Way ahead

Albert Einstein had stated, “Imagination is more important than Knowledge.” The Indian Navy and Indian Air Force are focusing on UUVs, Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems.

The Indian Army must focus on a few issues which are as elucidated:

  • Image interpretation for target identification and classification.
  • System for diagnosis and maintenance of sophisticated weapon systems.
  • Analysis of trajectory of missiles.
  • Use of robots for anti-Improvised Explosive Device and firing of weapons.
  • Logistics applications particularly in high-altitude terrain.

In the current Grey Zone Warfare scenario, where troops are operating in small teams, it would be important to apply AI as listed below:

  • Gathering of real-time intelligence by use of satellites and UAS.
  • Devices to detect sensors, mines and booby traps.
  • Use of loitering munition which can be used for surveillance and target engagement.
  • Gradually move into the field of combat robots, who can act as buddies and thereafter with greater improvement of cognitive abilities be able to act as path finders, navigators and possibly undertake kinetic strikes.

The point is how we can achieve it. We need a task force which operates directly with the Chief of Defence Staff and DRDO in conjunction with the private sector that would help us to achieve our targets.

 Conclusion

AI would be intensively used in future conflicts. China is straining every sinew to apply AI in defence to become a world power. China is an adversary of India and is likely to assist Pakistan in improving AI. Currently our armed forces have made nascent progress in this field. We need to accelerate and the only way to do it is link up with the private sector.

We have no other options but take this issue seriously to match China and Pakistan in the battlespace. The Chinese attitude in the Corps Commanders’ conference indicates its confidence in the field of AI and Multi Domain Warfare.

The writer is a former Deputy Director General of Perspective Planning Directorate, Defence Attaché to Vietnam and Additional Director General Artillery at Army Headquarters. Post-retirement, he was an advisor to BrahMos Aerospace. Views expressed are personal.

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