Digital Transformation and The Mechanised Forces: A New Era Or A Chimera?

 By Col. Samir Srivastava

Skyfall (2012)

Q to 007:        Well, I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Gray than you can do in a year in the field.

 (… be continued)

The inspiration to write this article came when the author attended the Pragyan Conclave organised by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies held at New Delhi in March this year. During the Inaugural Address, the Chief of the Army Staff spoke of ‘icons of the 20th Century Battlefield, like Main Battle Tank and Modern Aircraft’, on their way out, ‘like Sony Walkman’. As expected, this remark was widely reported and extensively discussed. However, while focussing on what was said, one should not lose sight of what was perhaps implied. The Walkman is certainly long gone; however, people have not stopped listening to music; only the means have changed. Similarly, as long as there is war (and wars will be fought long into the foreseeable future), there will be a requirement for terrestrial, marine and aerial platforms to fight them – only their form, shape, characteristics, and employment will change. And as recent events around the world suggest, war will always be what mankind has known it for – the capture of territory, destruction, killing, victory/defeat et al with the stage at which actual fighting begins being the only moot point. It is true that technological developments will change how wars are fought, but that has always been the case. This article aims to analyse the impact of the latest digital age technologies on Mechanised Forces and Mechanised Warfare, the author’s purported area of expertise.

What has happened? There have been reports of Turkish Army drones destroying a large number of Syrian tanks at Idlib in February 2020. There are no verified reports on the extent and nature of damage caused to the tanks (M-Kill or K-Kill, as it is referred to). Drones have been used for assassination attempts (Venezuela) and against oil facilities (Saudi Arabia), but this is the first time these have been used against armoured vehicles. Without going into details of the event, the following salient aspects emerge: –

  • Small size weapon systems fielded in large numbers, guided remotely/ through computer programs have found favour over contemporary large weapon systems.
  • These new weapon systems can be produced/ assembled at lower costs, even by countries not having an advanced industrial base that major powers have. It is true ‘Democratisation of Technology’ as Friedman puts it.

What is driving this change? This change is being led by cutting edge but low-cost technology. This is mostly through coding on commercially available systems. These technologies are largely cheap due to lower ‘overheads’. These can be accessed upon even by countries devoid of a robust scientific and technical base. The technologies include: –

  • Nanotechnology and 3-D Printing. For building new materials that can be smaller in size, stronger and more resilient.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI). A technology enabler that helps in building autonomous systems. Maximum work is happening in this field.
  • Quantum Computing. Computers with very high processing power aiding in running AI applications, complex algorithms, simulations, design, etc. This is still in the developmental stage.
  • BlockChain. Major uses in managing processes and encryption.

But is this the ‘Silver Bullet’?     Those who served during the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century would certainly remember talks of ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ and ‘Network Centric Warfare’ turning all war fighting paradigm on its head. Indeed, changes have taken place but it’s not that all contemporary equipment became obsolete – it’s just that the form changed. These days, digital transformation is the ‘flavour of the season’. Some may call it hype and therefore the journey of the technology from conception to adoption can perhaps be explained by the Gartner Hype Cycle given below.

The author is of the view that at present the world is nearing the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’. The ‘Plateau of Productivity’ would most likely be achieved in 5-10 years. As always, new technologies will alter the ways wars are fought and also the equipment to some extent, but the basic nature of war will remain the same and therefore contemporary weapon systems will remain relevant albeit in different forms, in the foreseeable future. This is because technology has vulnerabilities that can be managed but never obviated.

The Challenges.     Off late, there has been a concerted push towards digitising and ‘autonomising’ weapon systems. Large autonomous ‘swarms’ overwhelming weapon systems and destroying them may be the ‘the Technician’s dream and Tactician’s nightmare’ but this is not happening that soon – not even in the most technologically advanced forces. Some of the impediments, particularly with regards to the Mechanised Forces (Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry) have been given below: –

  • Miniaturisation. The first requirement for a swarm pitted against Mechanised Forces is of numerous small weapon systems which are able to inflict a K-Kill on Armoured Fighting Vehicles (AFV – this will refer to both tank and ICV unless specifically stated). The reason why damage could be inflicted upon AFVs at Idlib is because presently, an Armoured/ Mechanised sub unit doesn’t have requisite countermeasures. Once countermeasures come into play, the swarm weapon systems will have to be fitted with many more sub-systems thus increasing size and weight which will defeat the aim of miniaturisation.
  • Control. While autonomous systems are designed to act on their own, but some amount of human control/ intervention can’t be done away with. This gives rise to the issue of ‘span of attention/ control’. In the days of the Cavalry, the horseman was the driver, gunner and commander all in one. An AFV crew now consists of three soldiers. An AI driven autonomous weapon system may find its way to the target but there will a requirement of commanders to execute the tactical plan and gunners to press the trigger. How many AFVs or triggers can one person directly control is the question. Issue of data links being prone to disruption is another issue.
  • Hardware. AI driven autonomous systems need to have a vast repository of relevant data to work out options and outcomes using high computing power. Installing such hardware in a crammed AFV is not the same as fitting them in air-conditioned building. To put into perspective, all possible moves of chess can be stored in a few terabytes of memory space. However, a game of chess involves a fixed number of pieces following inviolable rules within a fixed number of squares, which is not the case in Mechanised Warfare. A Quantum Computer in its present form works in extremely low temperatures. Therefore, fielding any such system (assuming that miniaturisation has been done) in battle conditions will involve a large number of backup ancillaries which will be a dead give-away. An attempt to install client systems working on the processing power of a remotely located Quantum Computer in battle conditions would have attendant issues like electromagnetic spectrum management and susceptibility of the communication medium to disruption.
  • Countermeasures. While great strides have been made in AI and Machine Learning, the ‘intelligent’ machines are still prone to manipulation and obfuscation. This is because the machines rely on correlation rather than causation to analyse an event and make a decision. To enable proper correlation, every possible scenario will have to be translated into lines of code and even then, an intelligently executed countermeasure can make the machine turn against its own ‘master’.
  • Delegation. Directive Style of Command entails the subordinate to independently take decisions within the parameters of the higher commander’s intent. That said, even the most advanced military forces find it hard to let go control, mostly aided by improved communications. How much authority will be delegated to an autonomous weapon system even with the ‘man in the loop’ needs deliberation. A country trusting a computer to become a ‘Political Commissar’ is another issue.
  • Boots on Ground. The final arbiter of victory will be the Boots (and Tracks) on ground. One may say that intelligent weapons will ‘soften’ the target paving way for conventional Mechanised Forces and Infantry carrying out the ‘mopping up’. History is witness that even after the most savage artillery bombardments, defenders have put up a dogged fight and so smart weapons being a mere addition to traditional forces may not help. In other words, the transition shown in the picture below is unlikely to happen soon.

Review of the Situation.   As stated above, technologies driving the digital transformation of warfighting will ultimately reach the ‘Plateau of Productivity’. These technologies have a lot of potentials to revolutionise certain ‘do-able’ tasks which though not as ‘glamorous’ as actual fighting, are still very important. Some aspects where emerging technologies can make a difference in the Mechanised Forces are:-

  • Training. AI and Quantum Computing can revolutionise Mechanised Warfare training. Simulation and digital wargaming by their very nature require colossal amounts of processing power/machine learning to generate situations and monitor/evaluate outcomes. Investing in this field will open up new avenues for near realistic training.
  • Man Management. AI coupled with high-speed computing holds a lot of promise in man-management. Targeted recruiting campaigns can be run among youth. Technology can be leveraged to monitor social media for signs of disaffection, low morale, and subversion. Health parameters can be observed and processed in order to obviate health-related casualties. A word of caution – in this case, technology can only complement and not replace personal intervention of Commanders in the chain.
  • Equipment Management. Mechanised Forces, with their large array of equipment, can benefit immensely from digitisation. At present, each unit monitors its equipment in isolation. AI can be used to analyse vital parameters of equipment across the Mechanised Forces to predict potential equipment failures and also optimise the distribution of spares and consumables.
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. As brought out above, AI works best when seeking answers through correlation. AI can be used to study vast amounts of imagery to detect any enemy activity. Similarly, communication radio usage and patterns of the enemy can be observed to discern intentions.
  • Force Protection. Adding layers of protection to an already heavy AFV is not the best way. AI can be leveraged to scan the battlefield for threats and also launch requisite active protection countermeasures. This would be particularly effective against ATGMs and Armed Drones. Again, this cannot replace the pair of eyes of a trained human being.

The ‘Walkman’ in the Mind.         As stated earlier, contemporary weapon systems are outdated in their present form. Persisting with old ideas even when the world has moved sustains the status quo. This apparent inertia may be referred to as the Walkman in the Mind. The Mechanised Forces need to critically re-examine Mechanised Warfare and decide whether existing equipment, doctrines and tactics are relevant or not. In order to face offensive and defensive autonomous swarms, Mechanised Forces of the future need to be light, nimble, connected, and in large numbers. Therefore, some issues that merit consideration are:-

  • The Battles to be Fought. First Things First – what battles will the Mechanised Forces fight in the future? Will it anymore be like Alamein, Assal Uttar, Basantar, Valley of Tears, or 73rd Easting? Or will it be like Idlib or Zelenopiliya? Once the threats are correctly identified, there will be more clarity in designing the next generation of AFVs.
  • The Shape. Ask a child to draw a tank and we get to see the familiar picture of a turret with a gun atop a hull with tracks. This basic design has remained unchanged for more than seven decades now. Is it time to change that? If yes, then what will it be? The Israeli Mitznefet has shown how the distinct look of the quintessential infantry helmet can be changed. Perhaps there is a need to polymorph the tank and ICV in order to survive in the future battlefield.
  • The Gun. Urbanisation has brought down target engagement ranges to 1500 metres or less. Do we need guns firing shots to a distance of 2500-4000 metres? A smaller and lighter gun may change many things in the ‘Tank Design Conundrum’. Those who trained in the last decade of the 90s and first decade of the 21st century were taught that the best anti-tank weapon is another tank. That’s not the case now. With a realistic assessment of the future Mechanised Forces battlefield, the correct armaments can be developed.
  • The Weight. The Battle of The Obstacle is essentially a significant number of AFVs helping infantry create a Bridge-Head for many more to get across. Can we afford this kind of massing? If AFVs become lighter, perhaps they can scatter and drive across the numerous bridges that dot the landscape of the adversary’s territory. To be light, nimble, and in large numbers, AFVs need to shed weight. With Battle Swarms being the new norm, the quantum of armour protection may require a relook.
  • The Mechanised Infantry. With massing becoming passé and requirement of lighter ICV like platforms in larger numbers. Should the future Mechanised Infantry Battalion need to have fifty odd ICVs carrying one section each to battle or hundred-odd smaller ICVs carrying half a section each? The Mechanised Infantry also needs active protection and counter-drone measures on the ICV platform. This calls for a fresh look at ICV design.

In the End.    The Mechanised Forces now stand at an Inflection Point. Existing equipment, doctrines and tactics have served their purpose. The threats have changed form and therefore the Mechanised Forces need to follow suit. Change is in the DNA of the Mechanised Forces. Infantry and Artillery are essentially using vastly improved versions of the same weapon which took to the field centuries ago. It’s only the Cavalry which metamorphosed into the present-day Mechanised Forces. Now once again, technological changes call upon the Mechanised Forces to change form and adapt to the new battlefield. This is because, irrespective of digitisation, war will still involve entities made of flesh and blood (and brains) riding into the battlefield on their mounts.

Continuing the conversation between Q and 007…..

Q to 007:        Well, I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Gray than you can do in a year in the field.

007:                Oh, so why do you need me?

Q:                    Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.

007:                Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pyjamas…