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UAV Swarms : Sidestepping the Technology Trap

Anurag Dwivedi: Writes: The recent US demonstration of Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) has led to a flurry of articles on what future warfare will look like and why India must urgently follow suit to develop similar technology.

Anurag Dwivedi:  Writes: The recent US demonstration of Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) has led to a flurry of articles on what future warfare will look like and why India must urgently follow suit to develop similar technology. Some authors have gone so far as to suggest that we also suitably alter our strategy and tactics to match this new paradigm. Movie scenes in which an army of miniature flying robots overwhelm helpless human warriors subconsciously play out in our mind and reinforce the belief that we “must have” these high-tech machines in our arsenal.

There is no denying that technological and scientific innovations have had a major impact on warfare throughout history. LOCUST (and its autonomous robot cousins) may perhaps result in such future transformation, yet it is very important to not fall into a technology trap. Not every prototype demonstration is an instant paradigm shift and it takes time for military technology to mature and get inducted. Let us look at some other factors.

Post-Vietnam, the Americans have consciously adopted a doctrine of substituting boots on ground with high-tech machines in order to minimize battle casualties. The extensive use of UAVs and UCAVs is an example though some analysts question the wisdom of using a million dollar missile to kill two AK-47 wielding terrorists. The fact that US dollar is the global reserve currency has given Americans the financial latitude to indulge in such tactics.

It has also given Americans the liberty to invest billions of dollars into high-tech weaponry experiments even if they are never operationalised (viz the much hyped Star Wars project of yesteryears). No other country today has a similar military-industrial-economic ecosystem to replicate this model (though China is now trying to). Attempting to replicate every new toy developed by some American weapon manufacturer therefore needs serious deliberation else we are likely to fritter away our limited R&D abilities and budget.

This is not to say that autonomous machines will not play an increasingly important role in the future battlefield and we should bury our heads in sand and stick to the good old second / third generation way of war-fighting. Yet, we must rigorously question and vet each technology demonstration.

Take for example the UAV swarm. These machines are able to intelligently collaborate only because they can wirelessly communicate with each other and with their command computer. If these links are jammed (which is difficult but highly possible) then these machines are rendered useless. This is an asymmetric capability. We may also question as to how these devices would react to a sudden electromagnetic pulse (viz an EM bomb) or for that matter even a wire mesh thrown at them. We must also ask as to how much payload can be carried by such a small flying robot and what ranges are achievable. There are some basic laws of physics and aerodynamics that always apply.

Considering all these, an investment in already mature Electronic Warfare countermeasures seems much more justifiable than an investment in UAV swarms. Anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and Cyber Warfare are other such asymmetric anti-technologies which our fairly advanced indigenous base can be modified to achieve. Reinventing a technology in which another country has already made substantial advances will invariably run into denial regimes and keep us a few steps behind the leader. Second best is no good in War.

It is also worth remembering that the US has repeatedly failed to decisively wrap up a war despite their vastly superior and high-tech weaponry. Ditto with the Russians. Low cost asymmetric capability has often proved to be the graveyard of high-tech weaponry and we need not blindly follow the machine intensive doctrines of NATO. For a country like India – it is much more sensible to invest time and energy in developing only very select prototypes with proven paradigm shifting capabilities and devote much more effort towards developing asymmetric technologies and tactics. Electronic Warfare, Cyber Warfare and ASAT weapons are the obvious choices.

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