Security Issues

The Indian Navy’s readiness for underwater combat drones

India is attempting to integrate unmanned combat systems into its military. Months after the Indian Army announced the integration of swarm drones into its mechanized forces, Admiral R Hari Kumar, the Navy chief, emphasized the importance of autonomous systems in building a future-proof Indian Navy (IN).

The Indian Navy’s increased surveillance and the reasons for it

  • Indeed, the IN has been on a mission to increase surveillance in India’s near-seas: The navy released an unclassified version of its unmanned roadmap for the induction of remote autonomous platforms, including undersea vehicles, in July 2022, two years after leasing MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from the US.
  • Deterrence at sea in the Eastern Indian Ocean: Underwater domain awareness, regarded as an increasingly important component of maritime deterrence in the Eastern Indian Ocean, is a key driver for the enterprise.
  • In the aftermath of the conflict in Ladakh in June 2020, there is a growing sense among Indian experts and military planners that China’s undersea presence in the Indian Ocean is on the verge of crossing a critical threshold.
  • Recent reports of Chinese drones being spotted in Indonesian waters: Recent sightings of Chinese drones in the waters off Indonesian islands suggest that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy has been studying the Indian Ocean’s operating environment.
  • China has already deployed vessels around Andaman for research purposes: There has already been an increase in the deployment of Chinese research and survey vessels in the waters surrounding India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • Recognizing the threat, the Indian Navy sought to acquire its own AUV: As the dangers posed by foreign undersea presence in Indian waters became more apparent, the IN sought to acquire its own autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) with dual surveillance and strike capabilities.

The navy’s interest in armed underwater drones

  • Underwater vehicles were never considered warfighting assets: Despite their widespread use in underwater search and exploration, underwater vehicles have never been considered military assets by India’s military establishment.
  • Never considered using underwater drones for combat: Despite the utility of AUVs in tasks such as mine detection and ship survey, India’s naval planners have traditionally refrained from using undersea drones in combat.
  • Recognizing warfighting capabilities and the need of the hour: Indian analysts and decision-makers appear to be belatedly acknowledging the warfighting capabilities of artificial intelligence-powered underwater autonomous platforms (AI).
  • Getting ready for new-age warfare: With the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) ushering in a new era of warfare, Indian observers recognize the potential impact of disruptive technologies on the maritime domain. Many believe that AI powered by deep learning, data analytics, and cloud computing is poised to change the maritime battleground, potentially triggering a revolution in Indian naval affairs.

Difficulties in harnessing disruptive technologies in maritime combat

  • Ethical conundrum: An ethical paradox characterizes artificially intelligent combat systems.
  • Imported AI tech algorithms cannot be controlled by the user: Despite making warfare more lethal, AI compromises weapon system control, safety, and accountability. It also increases the risk of shared liability between networked systems, especially when weapon algorithms are sourced from abroad and the satellite and link systems that enable combat solutions are not under the user’s control.
  • Data bias in AI can undermine decision making: AI is distinguished by a bias toward certain types of data. Biases in data collection, data analysis instructions, and the selection of probabilistic outcomes muddle rational decision-making, undermining trust in automated combat solutions.
  • The doctrinal paradox is equally troubling: there is no easy way to incorporate AI-fueled warfighting approaches into doctrine, especially given that many technologies are still in the early stages of development and there is little certainty about how effective AI could be in combat.
  • AI development is hampered by capacity constraints: While the navy’s technology absorption has matured in some areas over time, a significant gap still exists in the development of critical technologies such as system engineering, airborne and underwater sensors, weapon systems, and high-tech components.

The critics of AI in warfare

  • Technology without thorough testing is dangerous: Fielding new technologies without thorough testing puts both military personnel and civilians at risk.
  • Computerized probabilistic analysis does not always provide the best solution: A system of targeting humans based on probabilistic assessments by computers acting solely on machine-learned experiences is problematic because the computer does not have access to all relevant data to make an informed decision and does not recognize that more information is required to arrive at an optimal solution.
  • It is difficult to shape policy to account for AI: This is due to the fact that military doctrine is based on a traditional understanding of the conflict. If war is a normative construct, then rules and codes must be followed, as well as ethical standards must be met.
  • AI could be incompatible with war laws: Furthermore, AI appears to automate weapon systems in ways that contradict war laws.

Legality issues of underwater combat drones

The UNCLOS status is not yet clear: It is unclear whether unmanned maritime systems have the status of ships under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; even if they do, they are unlikely to be classified as warships.

Way Forward

  • Despite the announcement of multiple AI projects, the navy continues to prioritize the use of AI in noncombat activities such as training, logistics, inventory management, maritime domain awareness, and predictive maintenance.
  • India’s maritime managers recognize that the IN is still at a stage in its evolution where incorporating AI in combat systems could be dangerous. Many people believe that taking small steps is the best way forward.

@the end

It is important to recognize that AI in warfare is a matter of both combat effectiveness and warfighting ethics. AI-infused unmanned systems on the maritime battleground pose a risk, requiring the military to deploy its assets in accordance with national and international law. India’s naval leadership would benefit from taking deliberate and calculated steps toward developing AI-powered underwater systems.

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