India leveraging geopolitical strengths to develop its own AI-powered defense systems

Strategic initiatives such as "AI in Defense," "Make in India," and "Buy IDDM" demonstrate India's commitment to nurturing indigenous AI solutions.

Samrudhi Pande Mar 28, 2024
Representational Photo

As we navigate the evolution from conventional to contemporary warfare, it becomes increasingly imperative to closely examine the nuances inherent in this shifting paradigm. Traditional tactical doctrines have traditionally operated under the premise that adversaries, when presented with a limited set of choices, would invariably select a predictable alternative. However, within the modern context of warfare, adversaries are confronted with a diverse array of options that extend beyond these conventional expectations. This concept encapsulates the essence of 'New Wars,' illustrating the evolving nature of conflict influenced by diverse factors such as globalization, the proliferation of small arms, and the erosion of state authority.

The progressively intricate international security landscape underscores a transition from conventional to unconventional methodologies and strategic frameworks. As the warfare landscape evolves, there emerges a pressing need to delve deeper into the complexities inherent in this dynamic transformation. Traditional tactical doctrines, long reliant on the assumption of adversaries following predictable paths, are challenged by the contemporary warfare context which offers adversaries a multitude of alternatives that diverge from conventional models. This notion embodies the core of 'New Wars,' which symbolizes the evolving nature of conflict influenced by various factors including globalization, the widespread proliferation of small arms, and the diminishing authority of traditional state structures. In this increasingly complex international security environment, there is a discernible shift from conventional to unconventional methodologies and strategic paradigms, necessitating a thorough reevaluation of military strategies and policies. 

AI-powered warfare

The development of AI has expanded beyond creative endeavors like composing poetry to serve as a tool for manipulating information and escalating conflicts through the weaponization of language. Computers have long been used in warfare, dating back to the 1940s. For instance, during World War II, computers like the Colossus played a vital role, assisting in decrypting encoded communications and providing crucial intelligence to the Allies. This intelligence influenced strategic decisions, contributing significantly to the Allies' victory. Additionally, analog computers were employed to calculate firing solutions, predict ballistics trajectories, and analyze aircraft designs. At the same time, Punched Card Tabulating Machines handled tasks such as data processing for personnel management and statistical analysis. These technological advancements during World War II marked a substantial leap in military technology, laying the foundation for further progress in this field.

The Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan marked a paradigm shift towards smarter warfare, leveraging cutting-edge computing technologies for logistics, communication, intelligence gathering, and training, thereby significantly enhancing the operational efficiency of Soviet forces.

Third revolution in warfare

With each advancement in AI, the complexities of warfare escalate, as automated systems increasingly exert influence on battlefield dynamics. This raises the imminent prospect of AI-driven autonomous robots or unmanned tankers engaging in lethal actions, alongside the inherent risks associated with generative AI algorithms. Moreover, the proliferation of highly convincing deepfake videos and audio, fabricated intelligence reports, and the potential for widespread misinformation and conflict incitement underscore the critical cybersecurity challenges posed by rapid technological advancements.

Although AI isn't the primary tool utilized in ongoing conflicts like the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it has been perceived as a valuable asset for propaganda, deepfake generation, and military data analysis. Essentially, it acts as a tool for operators to navigate vast datasets and pinpoint specific targets or characteristics. Publicly available evidence indicates that Ukraine successfully shot down a technologically advanced A50 aircraft with the assistance of AI-powered surface-to-air missile systems, notably the S-200, over the Sea of Azov. Global stakeholders are continuously scrutinizing this conflict to assess the effectiveness of various technological systems and concepts, particularly those related to net-centric and networked battlefield strategies.

Recent media reports reveal that Israel has deployed an advanced AI platform called "the Gospel," often dubbed a "mass assassination factory," which enhances target identification by prioritizing quantity metrics. During the 2021 conflict with Hamas, it achieved a remarkable rate of 100 targets per day. While Israel justifies its actions within the self-defense framework, concerns persist regarding potential impacts on civilian populations. As AI tools gain prominence in modern warfare, the ethical and humanitarian implications remain a focal point of discussion. The deployment of the Gospel signifies a significant leap in Israel's targeting capabilities, yet it also underscores the nuanced challenges posed by AI integration in military contexts. Similarly, in the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict, AI-enabled optic sights manufactured by Israeli startup Smart Shooter are attached to weapons like rifles and machine guns, enabling even a visually impaired soldier to operate as a sniper. Additionally, drones equipped with AI technology, such as those developed by Israel startup Robotican, are used for mapping tunnels and detecting humans underground, enhancing military capabilities in challenging terrains.

Autonomous weapons are considered to bring the third revolution in warfare, following the invention of the atomic bomb and gunpowder. Despite this, data regarding AI-powered modern warfare indicates that we have not yet reached a stage where fully autonomous systems independently choose targets and operate in swarms. However, progress toward this goal is ongoing, with new systems, tactics, and procedures being tested worldwide daily.

India's AI journey

Indian Army chief,  General Manoj Pande, has designated 2023 as the year of information transfer for the Indian Army, with 2024 now earmarked as the year of technological absorption and self-reliance. He underscores India's substantial knowledge and capabilities, stressing the need for comprehensive utilization to effectively absorb cutting-edge technology.

Experts note the acceleration of India's pursuit of self-reliance in AI and technology under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership, surpassing progress made in 2012. Substantial advancements and growth in the defense manufacturing sector reflect India's proactive measures to reduce dependency on imports for various capability development needs, a critical aspect of the Indian Army's strategic planning for future readiness.

The government has implemented a range of initiatives to foster indigenous capabilities, including streamlined licensing processes to encourage greater private sector participation, the establishment of defense corridors for policy implementation and market facilitation, dedicated budgets for research and development, incentives for technology transfer, financial autonomy for ordnance factories, and corporatization efforts.

To optimize resource utilization, initiatives like establishing centers of excellence in technical institutes for areas such as 5G, AI, and Quantum Laboratories in collaboration with institutions like IIT Madras have been undertaken. Utilization of indigenous space assets, particularly in satellite communication networks, has been prioritized, along with the recent approval of a new FDI policy in the space sector, liberalizing thresholds for investment and private industry involvement in satellite development and launch systems.

Regional technology nodes in Pune and Bangalore aim to bridge the gap between defense industry stakeholders, startups, MSMEs, and academia. Indian Army cells have been established in prestigious institutes like IIT Delhi and IIT Kanpur, with plans for expansion to other premier institutions. Proactive industry engagement includes presenting problem statements and soliciting solutions to address future defense requirements from a technological and capability standpoint.

Further emphasis is placed on partnership and production initiatives, including conducting trials, providing testing and certification support, offering in-service equipment for research and development, facilitating exports through NOCs, and promoting the defense industry in friendly foreign nations through military diplomacy and exercises.

Substantial investments in research processes and advanced manufacturing technologies have produced cutting-edge military hardware by approximately 350 industry players. The anticipated fulfillment of around 230 contracts by 2025, with 45 niche technologies identified for military applications, and 120 indigenous projects currently underway to develop and integrate these technologies, reflect India's strides in technological advancement and integration within the defense sector.

Efforts have also been made to maintain a balanced inventory between vintage, current, and state-of-the-art equipment over the past two financial years, with plans to significantly increase the proportion of state-of-the-art equipment through targeted capability development by 2030.

Global cooperation 

The rapid evolution of warfare and AI has sparked global concerns about the rise of an unpredictable and formidable force. As AI advances, it stands poised to deeply impact various aspects of human life. This transformative potential evokes a mix of fascination and concern, given our incomplete understanding of AI's capabilities. It's akin to building engines without fully grasping the science of combustion, leaving us vulnerable to the exploitation of human weaknesses. The challenge of distinguishing reality from fabrication looms large in AI's rapid progression.

Lessons drawn from historical and contemporary global conflicts suggest that solutions for AI warfare must stem from two main sources: self-sufficiency and enhanced international cooperation. It's vital to realize that a nation's security cannot rely solely on others or external assistance. We must be self-reliant in meeting our defense needs, whether through acquiring new weaponry or maintaining existing capabilities and strive for independence in critical technologies to safeguard our nation.

International collaboration is essential for success in AI warfare. There are compelling reasons for strengthening global cooperation. The complexity and resource demands of AI research require substantial funding and resources. Progress in AI innovation hinges on access to vast high-quality data, significant computing capabilities, specialized expertise, and skilled personnel. Collaborative efforts and partnerships can streamline these requirements. Without cooperation, there's a risk of redundant investments in AI capabilities, leading to unnecessary costs and potentially suboptimal AI outcomes.

Countries are increasingly using AI and drones for military targeting, raising the importance of establishing regulatory frameworks and standards. This endeavor demands a deep understanding of AI functionalities within specific contexts. Effective collaboration between international AI experts and governments can facilitate the development of such policies.

Partnership and production initiatives allow companies developing AI solutions to share knowledge with friendly foreign nations, often through military exercises conducted for diplomatic purposes. Government support, by granting necessary permissions for such initiatives, further enhances collaboration.

No nation can navigate the AI landscape alone, particularly in areas like data sharing and using AI to address global defense challenges such as cybersecurity and autonomous weapons systems proliferation. The potential risks of unchecked AI usage are significant, underscoring the necessity for collaboration among like-minded nations to effectively tackle these challenges.

Collaboration on Regulating Policies: The rapid advancement of AI technology necessitates immediate action to mitigate potential adverse effects. Current regulatory frameworks for AI are insufficient and incomplete. Proactive and targeted international cooperation can assist in harmonizing AI policies and regulations.

Collaboration on setting AI Standards: There are several aspects to consider, including ensuring the compatibility of AI systems developed by different nations for seamless cooperation, preventing arms races in AI technology by promoting transparency, trust, and predictability among nations, and establishing accountability through clear rules and obligations for development, deployment, and use in warfare. In essence, international collaboration on AI standards in warfare is crucial for promoting stability, security, and responsible application within the global community.

Collaboration on Joint Research and Development: Participating in international joint research and development efforts for AI in warfare is essential to pool resources, exchange expertise, and drive innovation in addressing common challenges. Through collaboration, nations can accelerate technological advancements, ensure the interoperability of AI systems, and advocate for ethical and responsible deployment in military operations. Moreover, joint initiatives foster trust and transparency among nations, reducing the likelihood of misunderstandings or conflicts arising from differences in AI capabilities.

India's readiness to pioneer the AI expedition

Artificial intelligence embodies a dual nature, akin to a double-edged sword - while it holds promise for facilitating positive advancements across various domains, its misuse can yield significant harm. A concerning example lies in the development of autonomous weapons equipped with AI capabilities, now actively deployed in combat settings for offensive purposes. This reality transcends the realm of science fiction, underscoring the urgency to avert widespread misuse. India stands poised to contribute significantly in this regard.

Driven by its expanding economy, strategic geographical location, and dynamic foreign policy under current leadership, India has garnered recognition on the global stage. Despite lacking affiliation with major military alliances, India maintains close strategic and military ties with numerous influential nations, placing it advantageously as a potential frontrunner in AI-powered defense.

To assert its prominence in AI warfare, India is leveraging several inherent advantages:

Abundant Technical Talent Pool:  With a wealth of talent in engineering and computer science, India stands out as a leading center for AI research and development, providing an ideal environment for testing AI-driven defense systems.

Innovation Focus:  Strategic initiatives such as "AI in Defense," "Make in India," and "Buy IDDM" demonstrate India's commitment to nurturing indigenous AI solutions. Complemented by proactive measures like establishing centers of excellence in technical institutes and fostering regional technology hubs in Pune and Bangalore, India showcases its dedication to fostering a culture of innovation.

Global Collaboration: India's tradition of non-alignment facilitates partnerships with a diverse range of countries for AI development. This collaborative approach facilitates the exchange of knowledge, resources, and best practices in AI warfare, fostering global cooperation and interoperability.

In summary, artificial intelligence is rapidly transforming the battlefield across multiple fronts, including cybersecurity, cognitive assistance, sensor fusion, loitering munitions, and armed robotic technologies. These transformations are expected to intensify in the coming years as advancements in robotics, world model development, and AI-driven materials science and manufacturing pave the way for innovative weapon systems.

India's proactive initiatives to capitalize on its geopolitical strengths, alongside its strong focus on innovation and international partnerships, position the country as a pivotal player in shaping the future landscape of AI-driven defense systems.

(The author was a Raisina 2024 delegate and a policy enthusiast. Views are personal. She can be contacted at

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