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Artificial Intelligence in Military Operations: Technology, Ethics and the Indian Perspective

After decades of false starts, AI/ Robotics technologies today appear to be at an inflexion point.



Courtesy: IDSA, New Delhi

Ever since Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo programme defeated South Korea’s top professional Lee Sedol in 2016 in the popular board game Go, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, including machine learning and deep learning,1 have seized the imagination of people across the globe. While the impact of AI is already being felt in many areas, such as speech recognition in digital assistants like Siri and Cortana, and consumer behaviour prediction by Amazon and Google, it is future AI systems that are creating all the excitement. The most prominent amongst these is self-driving cars, with the year 2020 being targeted by market leaders for productionising cars capable of driving themselves without any human intervention.

There appears to be general agreement on the positive benefits which AI can bring to society. At the same time, there is also an underlying fear grounded in the belief that AI systems would one day exceed human intelligence and capabilities, a line of thinking which leads to many doomsday scenarios. Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and others have all expressed serious concern about the uncontrolled development of AI applications, stating repeatedly that AI could pose the greatest existential threat to humanity.

Of immediate concern, however, is the use of AI in military applications, specifically those termed as Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWs). LAWs, according to a commonly accepted definition, are weapon systems that “once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention.2 The prospects of this military application has given rise to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 64 non-government organisations (NGOs) launched in April 2013 under the aegis of Human Rights Watch with the aim of pre-emptively banning fully autonomous lethal weapons. This Campaign, amongst others, advocates the view that retaining human control over the use of force is a moral imperative and essential for promoting compliance with international law and ensure accountability.

An informal group of experts from a large number of countries has been debating the issue of LAWs for three years now at the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) forum known as Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). In December 2016, countries agreed to formalise these deliberations. As a result, a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) has been established, the first of which was held from 13 to 17 November 2017, chaired by Ambassador Amandeep Gill of India. Approximately 90 countries along with many other agencies participated in the meeting. Some of the conclusions arrived at during the meeting were:

  • states must ensure accountability for lethal action by any weapon system used by them in armed conflict;
  • acknowledging the dual nature of technologies involved, the Group’s efforts should not hamper civilian research and development in these technologies; and,
  • there is a need to keep potential military applications using these technologies under review.

It was also agreed that a ten-day meeting should be scheduled in 2018.

The primary argument put forth by advocacy groups calling for a ban is that weapon systems that have autonomy in the critical functions of ‘select and engage’ would be in violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and specifically its principles of distinction and proportionality.3 While the former principle requires weapon systems to be able to reliably distinguish between combatants and civilians, the latter requires value judgement to be used before applying military force. According to this argument, LAWs will never be able to live up to these requirements. In addition, there is also the consideration of what is known as the Martens Clause, wherein it is contended that delegating to machines the decision power of ‘life and death’ over humans would be “against the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience.”4

There is an equally vocal body of opinion which states that the development and deployment of LAWs would not be illegal, and in fact would lead to the saving of human lives. This is because without the driving motivation for self-preservation, LAWs may be used in a self-sacrificing manner, saving human lives in the process. Moreover, they can be designed without emotions that normally cloud human judgment during battle leading to unnecessary loss of lives. An argument is also put forth that autonomous weapons would have a wide range of uses in scenarios where civilian presence would be minimal or non-existent, such as tank or naval warfare, and that the question of legality depends on how these weapons are used, and not on their development or existence.5

Some of the well-known autonomous defensive weaponry already in use today are missile defence systems such as the Iron Dome of Israel and the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System used by the US Navy. Fire-and-forget systems, such as the Brimstone missile system of the United Kingdom (UK) and the Harpy Air Defense Suppression System of Israel, also function in an autonomous manner. Another oft quoted example of existing autonomous weapon systems is the SGR-A1, a sentry robot deployed by South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone with its northern adversary.6

The relevance of the ongoing debate on LAWs in the context of the Indian military landscape cannot be over-emphasized, as there are many scenarios where these can be deployed to advantage. Autonomous systems designed to disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are already in use by Indian forces, although these are non-lethal and defensive in nature. Future possible applications include AI-enabled drone swarms to boost surveillance capabilities; robot sentries along the borders to check infiltration by terrorists; autonomous armed UAVs for use in conventional as well as sub-conventional scenarios, and so on.7 In general, saving own soldiers from the lethality of war would yield rich dividends to any military force, especially in conventional conflicts. Faced with the prospect of a two and a half front war, the development of LAWs by India assumes strategic significance.

The United States has put AI at the centre of its quest to maintain its military dominance. As a part of its Third Offset Strategy announced in 2014,8 the Pentagon has reportedly dedicated US $18 billion for its Future Years Defense Program,9 a substantial portion of which has been allocated for robotics, autonomous systems and human-machine collaboration. Chinese military leaders and strategists believe that the character of warfare is fundamentally changing due to unmanned platforms and autonomous systems and have labelled AI research as a national priority, thus giving it a huge impetus.10 Russian president Vladimir Putin has recently predicted that whichever country leads the way in AI research will come to dominate global affairs. Without doubt, Russia is pursuing the development of LAWs in earnest, in order to keep pace with the US and China in this new arms race. The UK, France and Israel, amongst others, are expected to be significant players in this contentious new field.

In the context of India’s defence, presently there appears to be a void in terms of doctrines and perspective plans when it comes to the exploitation of AI/ Robotics technologies. Occasional interactions by the defence establishment with the DRDO’s Centre for AI and Robotics (CAIR) and other agencies are inadequate to spur the latter into producing timely and meaningful results. Given its track record, DRDO is unlikely to be successful in developing complex lethal autonomous systems anytime soon. It is also worth noting that world-wide, R&D in these technologies is being driven by the private commercial sector rather than the defence industry. Unfortunately, the Indian equivalents of Baidu, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are yet to rise to the occasion, despite the strengths of our IT industry. Clearly, much more needs to be done.

After decades of false starts, AI/ Robotics technologies today appear to be at an inflection point, making rapid advancements which are considered significant enough to usher in a new revolution in military affairs (RMA). Notwithstanding the world-wide concern about the development of LAWs from the legal and ethical points of view, it is increasingly clear that, irrespective of any conventions that may be adopted by the UN, R&D by major countries is likely to proceed unhindered. Given India’s security landscape, perhaps there is a need to adopt a radically different approach for facilitating the development of LAWs. As with any transformation, this is no easy task. Only a determined effort, with specialists on board and due impetus being given from the apex level, is likely to yield the desired results.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

R S Panwar

Lieutenant General (Dr) Ravindra Singh Panwar, AVSM, SM, VSM (retd.) is the 57th Colonel Commandant of the Corps of Signals. His last appointment in the Indian Army was as Commandant of Military College of Telecommunication Engineering, Mhow.

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#GaganShakti2018: #IAF Executes Inter Valley Troop Transfer (IVTT) Along With the #IndianArmy

IVTT, a major Joint Operation, was conducted in the high hills of Northern and North-Eastern Sector.



SOMEWHERE IN NORTHEAST INDIA: As part of ongoing exercise ‘GaganShakti-2018’, the Operational Commands of the IAF planned and executed Inter-Valley Troop Transfer (IVTT) in coordination with affiliated Indian Army Commands. IVTT, a major Joint Operation, was conducted in the high hills of Northern and North-Eastern Sector.

The aim of the exercise was to validate the capability of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army to quickly transfer and redeploy acclimatized troops, in the simulated objective area.

These operations are conducted to reposition troops from one valley to another, to counter any evolving threat and to surprise or offensively exploit the weakness of the adversary.

In the mountainous terrain, the movement of the troops from one valley to another is a challenging task. The redeployment of forces from one area of interest to another may at times take a couple of days. IVTT operations help to reposition the desired forces within a couple of hours.

All the three commands of IAF conducted a company level exercise in their area of operations, in a time-sensitive environment.

This tactical transfer of troops not only validated Joint Operations between the IAF & the Indian Army but also showcased the capability of the IAF to operationalise forward ALG’s by setting up communications and refuelling facilities and preparing aircraft operating surface.

C-130 and AN-32 tactical transport aircraft and Mi-17 V5 / ALH helicopters are used for these missions. Owing to their versatile maneuvering capabilities, these platforms are most adaptable in an extremely demanding high altitude terrain.

The operations were meticulously planned by the planning staff and the aircrew executed the demanding and rigorous operations by flying in a coordinated manner, giving due importance to the flight safety.

In addition to the aircrew, the maintenance and administrative personnel, worked relentlessly through day and night, to ensure smooth conduct of these high-intensity operations.

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Command Hospital (Western Command) Chandimandir Adjudged Best Service Hospital

The Command Hospital (Southern Command), Pune was adjudged the Second Best Command Hospital.



PANCHKULA (Haryana): The Raksha Mantri Smt Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Raksha Mantri’s Trophy and citation for the Best Service Hospital in the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) for the year 2017 to Command Hospital (Western Command), Chandimandir, here today.

Commandant of Command Hospital (Western Command), Chandimandir Major General Rashmi Datta received the awards from the Raksha Mantri on behalf of the hospital.

The Command Hospital (Southern Command), Pune was adjudged the Second Best Command Hospital.

The Commandant of the Hospital Major General A Chakravarty received a trophy and a citation from the Raksha Mantri.

Speaking on the occasion, the Raksha Mantri Smt Sitharaman praised the yeoman service being rendered by the AFMS over the years both in war and peace. She complimented all members of both the award-winning hospitals and the entire AFMS for their excellent work in providing of contemporary and comprehensive healthcare.

Director General Armed Forces Medical Services (DGAFMS) Lt Gen Bipin Puri, highlighted the modernisation programme of the Medical Services and reassured that the AFMS is fully prepared to meet all challenges in operations, peacetime and disaster relief/ humanitarian aid.

The Raksha Mantri’s Trophy was instituted in 1989 to create a healthy competition among the Command Hospitals of the Army and its equivalent hospitals in the Navy and Air Force.

The Best and Second Best hospital are adjudged on the basis of a number of objective criteria by a Committee headed by Director General (Org &Pers) with Joint Secretary (Navy), Ministry of Defence being a member of the Committee.

The function was attended by the Chief of the Army Staff General Bipin Rawat, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba, Secretary, Department of Ex-Servicemen Welfare Smt SanjeevaneeKutty, Vice Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal SB Deo and other senior service and civilian officials.

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Bundelkhand Defence Corridor Put on Fast Track

The corridor which will extend through a number of districts including Aligarh, Agra, Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Chitrakoot will be built with an investment of Rs 200 crore.



JHANSI (Uttar Pradesh): Work on the defence corridor in Bundelkhand, one of the two that have been planned in India, has been put on the fast track.

Chief minister Yogi Adityanath met defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman in Jhansi to take stock of the preliminary work that has been carried out in the region.

A function was held at Jhansi on Monday to announce the project. It was attended, among others, by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and defence manufacturers from across the country.

Addressing the function, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath expressed hope that the defence corridor, as well as various other developmental projects, will usher in a new era of progress in this region of the state.

The corridor which will extend through a number of districts including Aligarh, Agra, Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Chitrakoot will be built with an investment of Rs 200 crore.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has expressed confidence that the proposed defence corridor that is coming up will give incentives to entrepreneurs engaged in defence production as well as the local youth.

Union Minister Uma Bharti said that the government is setting small and big industries for development in Bundelkhand, which will give employment to 2 million people in the state.

In the February Investors’ Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised two defence corridors for the country one of which he said would come up in Uttar Pradesh.

A major portion of the corridor would fall in Bundelkhand.

The Defence corridor is greatly expected to increase India’s self-sufficiency in the defence sector to a great extent.

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