By Ayaskant Das
New Delhi: The need for artificial intelligence and unmanned systems in maritime surveillance is being increasingly felt because of the regularity with which the indigenous ship-building industry is delivering platforms to the Indian Navy.
The increase in the inventory of platforms with the navy comes at a time when there exists a net deficit in terms of multi-role helicopters and military aircraft to safeguard these vessels.
The need assumes all the more significance because of China’s attempts at gaining influence in the Indian Ocean Region, even as its relations with India have worsened over the last year due to the events in Ladakh.
Experts are stressing upon the need for an integrated system of satellite-based data, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and reconnaissance operations in the Indian Ocean Region, particularly after the outcome of the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
The war, which began in Sep. 2020 between the two former Soviet Republics over the disputed Nagorno–Karabakh region, was won by Azerbaijan primarily with the help of unmanned drones that were used to shatter enemy defences.
“The future of surveillance and reconnaissance in the navy is unmanned. The need for manned platforms to carry out these operations is gradually becoming redundant,” Captain D. K. Sharma (Retired), former Indian Navy spokesperson, said.
“The extent to which unmanned aerial vehicles can be used in warfare can be gauged from the manner in which Azerbaijan defeated Armenia recently. Responses to perceived maritime threats should be graded. Information collected from satellite data should be shared with friendly nations in order to create a maritime domain awareness.
“Unmanned aerial vehicles should be deployed to intercept these threats in the first stage. Only when no contact is established should a larger platform like a P-8I be deployed. Frigates and destroyers can be used as the last resort when the integrity of the nation is threatened by the enemy,” said Captain D. K. Sharma.
While a ceasefire agreement was signed between Azerbaijan and Armenia in November, the conflict has left important lessons over the use of drones and artificial intelligence in future warfare, as well as for purposes of surveillance and reconnaissance.
On Nov. 12, the Washington Post, reported following the ceasefire between the two countries:
“Drone strikes – targeting Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroying tanks, artillery and air defense systems – provided a huge advantage for Azerbaijan in the 44-day war and offered the clearest evidence yet of how battlefields are being transformed by unmanned attack drones rolling off assembly lines around the world.”
The article further said: “Nagorno-Karabakh has become perhaps the most powerful example of how small and relatively inexpensive attack drones can change the dimensions of conflicts once dominated by ground battles and traditional air power.”
In the Indian context, over the last few years, while warships have been delivered at fairly regular frequency, there has been a shortfall in the numbers of equipment that can be used for surveillance, reconnaissance, anti-submarine warfare and anti-surface vessel warfare.
According to experts, these vessels patrolling the Indian Ocean Region are exposed to submarine attacks without the requisite number of military surveillance aircraft and multi-role choppers. Though each warship is expected to carry at least one chopper for multi-role functions, the actual numbers are far too low, as compared to the numbers of vessels that have been added recently.
On the other hand, Indian Navy’s principal adversary in the Indian Ocean Region, the People’s Liberation Army – Navy of China has reportedly developed its own multi-role chopper, the Harbin Z-20, in order to help safeguard its own expanding fleet of warships. According to reports, the Chinese Harbin Z-20 is a clone of the United States-made Sikorsky Black Hawk, built by acquiring technology through reverse engineering, in order to cut costs and expenses.
“Sending ships and aircraft for surveillance into the vast expanses of the ocean is awfully expensive and manpower intensive. We should rather graduate to using technology for these purposes. Satellites and unarmed platforms are the future and the alternatives available at hand,” added Captain D. K. Sharma.
On Oct. 22, the Indian Navy commissioned INS Kavaratti off the Vishakapatnam coast, which was the last of the four Kamorta class anti-submarine warfare corvettes built indigenously by the Kolkata-based Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers Limited (GRSE).
In May, the Indian Navy commissioned the seventh of the eight Landing Craft Utility vessels, which again was built indigenously by GRSE. The vessel has the capability of transporting battle tanks, armored vehicles, troops, and equipment from ship to shore.
India has undertaken a programme to build six Scorpene class submarines under project P75 out of which two vessels have already been commissioned. The first submarine under this project, INS Kalvari, was commissioned in Dec. 2017, while another vessel, INS Khanderi, was inducted in Sep. 2019.
Earlier this month, the fifth submarine under this project, INS Vagir, was launched by Mazagon Docks and Shipbuilders Limited (MDL) in Mumbai. The entire fleet of six ships, being built by MDL, is expected to be delivered by 2022.
Six more submarines are set to be inducted into the Indian Navy between 2027 and 2032 under Project 75(I) which will be awarded through the Strategic Partnership model soon.
Further, a total of seven frigates belonging to the Nilgiri class are being built by GRSE and MDL under Project 17A. The first ship in this class, INS Nilgiri, was launched in Sep. 2019. All seven ships under P17A are expected to be delivered by Aug. 2025.
Additionally, four Talwar-class frigates are also being constructed in India, with collaboration from Russia, under Project P-11356.
What are the resources at hand for Indian Navy to identify and pre-empt attacks by enemy forces upon these warships and vessels?
The last of Indian Navy’s Sea Harriers, a naval reconnaissance and attack aircraft known for its unique ability of vertical take-off and vertical landing, was phased out in 2016. The United Kingdom-made medium lift transport and utility Sea King choppers, which were inducted into the Indian Navy for anti-submarine and anti-surface vessel warfare around 40 years ago, have all been decommissioned, except for just one front line squadron based at INS Shikra in Mumbai.
The Indian Navy is in the process of acquiring surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as multi-role helicopters, but their actual delivery is expected to take place over the course of a few years.
In Feb. 2020, during US President Donald Trump’s visit, India signed a deal for acquiring 24 MH-60R maritime multirole helicopters from Lockheed Martin. The choppers, meant for replacing Indian Navy’s Sea King helicopters, are touted to be the best in the world for anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare as well as for search and rescue missions. However, the first Romeo chopper is expected in India only by 2021, while it might not be before the year 2024 when the entire fleet is delivered.
In Nov. 2020, the ninth P-8I reconnaissance and maritime patrol aircraft from American defence major Boeing Co., was delivered to the Indian Navy. India had entered into a deal worth 2.1 billion with Boeing Co. in 2009 for eight P8I aircraft. However, a deal worth around U$1 billion was again negotiated with Boeing Co. for acquiring four additional aircraft. The rest of the three P-8Is are expected to be delivered in 2021.
“A shipborne helicopter has multiple roles to discharge. For example, an anti-submarine warfare helicopter can also be deployed for anti-ship strike, search, and rescue, or in logistic roles. Unfortunately, our navy has had to do without adequate number of helicopters because our languid acquisition system delayed the process excessively,” former Indian Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Arun Prakash (Retired) said.
“However, once the MH-60R choppers join the fleet, we should be in a comfortable position. Drones have their own role to play, in terms of surveillance, targeting and even attack. But they are not a substitute for helicopters. Artificial intelligence is certainly going to play an important role in maritime warfare, and one hopes that the Defence Research and Development Organisation is working in close co-operation with the navy to evolve systems employing all aspects of it,” Admiral Arun Prakash said.