Connect with us


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.

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.

Continue Reading


Army Foils Attack on J&K Air Force Station



An attempt by two-three militants to attack a Water Pump House outside Air Force Station at Awantipora in Pulwama District was foiled by alert guards on February 20.

“2-3 (militants) fired and lobbed a grenade at the Air Force Water Pump House Malangpora located outside Air Force Station Awantipora at around 1730 hours today [February 20]. The fire was effectively retaliated by alert sentries,” a Defence Ministry spokesman said.

“The (militants) fled. There is no loss of life or property (in the incident),” the spokesman said, adding searches have been launched to trace the attackers. “The search operation is underway,” the spokesman said.

A Police officer said that Army and Police cordoned off area but militants managed to escape. “No arrests were made so far,” the officer said.

Police and 55 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) of Army cordoned off Narbal village of Pulwama District after reports about the presence of militants in the village on February 20 evening.

As the Security Forces (SFs) laid the cordon, people of the village came out and pelted stones at the SFs who fired in the air to disperse them. They also fired tear smoke to disperse the protesters. The cordon was, however, on when last reports came in.

Continue Reading


Avani Chaturvedi Creates History for the Indian Air Force



Flying Officer Avani Chaturvedi becomes the first Indian woman to fly fighter aircraft MiG-21 Bison solo.

Chaturvedi flew a MiG-21 bison in her first training solo sortie, in Jamnagar, Gujarat.

She completed the half-an-hour long solo flight in the Russian-origin jet in the skies over Jamnagar Air Base. “This is a major milestone in training of a fighter pilot and first time an Indian woman has flown a fighter aircraft solo. It demonstrates IAF’s enduring commitment to ‘Nari Shakti’,” IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Anupam Banerjee said.

It is pertinent to mention here that MiG-21 Bison has the highest landing and take-off speed in the world – 340 kmph.

She is one of the three in the first batch of female pilots, besides Bhawana Kanth and Mohana Singh, who were inducted in Indian Air Force fighter squadron on June 18, 2016.

Speaking to news agencies, Air Commodore Prashant Dixit said, “It is a unique achievement for Indian Air Force and the country.”

She is from Rewa district in Madhya Pradesh.  She completed her training at Hyderabad Air Force Academy. She did her schooling from Deoland, a small town in Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh. Completing her Bachelors in Technology from Banasthali University, Rajasthan in 2014, she passed the Indian Air Force exam.

Chaturvedi is inspired by her brother who is in the Army.

She was declared as the first combat pilot along with two of her cohort, Mohana Singh, and Bhawana Kanth.

Mohana Singh and Bhawana have also completed training to fly a fighter plane and will soon fly fighter planes. All three were given training in January.s inducted into the Indian Air Force fighter squadron on June 18, 2016. They were formally commissioned by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.

Chaturvedi, who is posted to No. 23 Squadron (Panthers), is from the first batch of three women officers who were commissioned as fighter pilots in the IAF in June 2016. Till last week, she had undertaken flights in twin-seater training jets, accompanied by Qualified Flying Instructors of the IAF. After completing her basic flying training on a Pilatus aircraft at the Air Force Academy, Chaturvedi underwent six months of training on Kiran trainer jets at Hakimpet, which was followed by a year-long training stint on Hawk advanced trainer jets at Bidar Air Base.

Only selected countries, such as Britain, the United States, Israel, and Pakistan, have allowed women in the role of fighter pilots.

It was in October 2015 that the Government took the decision to open the fighter stream for women. Meanwhile, combat roles in the Army and the Navy are still off-limits for women, due to a combination of operational concerns and logistical constraints.

On December 16, 2017, two women from the second batch to enter the fighter stream of the Indian Air Force were commissioned after graduating from the Air Force Academy, Dundigul.

It was only in 1992 that the armed forces began recruiting women to streams, other than the Medical stream. Since 1993, women officers have been inducted into all branches and stream as Short Service Commissioned Officers except in the fighter stream. However, IAF has revised Short Service Commission scheme to induct women into the fighter stream on experimental basis for five years.

The IAF has already selected the next batch of three women trainee pilots for the fighter stream.


Continue Reading


India Test Fires Nuclear Capable Agni-II Missile



Representational Picture (PIB)

India on February 20 test-fired its medium range nuclear capable Agni-II missile with a strike range of 2,000 km from Abdul Kalam Island off Odisha coast.

The trial of the surface-to-surface missile was conducted from a mobile launcher at the Launch Complex-4 of the Integrated Test Range (ITR).

The Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) has already been inducted into the services and Tuesday’s test was carried out by the Army’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) with logistic support provided by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), they said.

The 20-mt-long Agni-II ballistic missile has a launch weight of 17 tonnes and can carry a payload of 1,000 kg over a distance of 2,000 km.

The state-of-the-art missile, already a part of the country’s arsenal of strategic deterrence, was launched as a training exercise by the armed forces, a DRDO scientist said. Agni-II, a two-stage missile, equipped with advanced high accuracy navigation system and guided by a unique command and control system was propelled by solid rocket propellant system, he said.

The entire trajectory of the trial was tracked by a battery of sophisticated radars, telemetry observation stations, electro-optic instruments and two naval ships located near the impact point in the down range area of the Bay of Bengal.

Agni-II was developed by the Advanced Systems Laboratory along with other DRDO laboratories and integrated by the Bharat Dynamics Limited, Hyderabad.

The missile is part of the Agni series of missiles which includes the Agni-I with a 700 km range, Agni-III with a 3,000 km range, Agni-IV and Agni-V both having long-range capabilities.

The first prototype of the Agni-II missile was carried out on April 11, 1999, and the last launch was a user’s trial on May 4, 2017.

Continue Reading

Also In The News