Unmanned Autonomous Systems

“Whatever can be defined can be designed and developed !”

                                                ……….the Technology Tag Line

Unmanned Threat

The Jammu airfield drone attack has been in news lately for the right reasons – the unmanned autonomous aerial systems have entered sensitive installations in the hinterland. Whether these flew in from Pakistan across the IB or from a downtown shack will remain to be investigated, but the bigger lesson is that UAS have arrived. What is seen is an aerial system but consider a contingency of an unmanned system in a seeker shooter mode, totally autonomous, with a swarm of aerial and ground-based vectors (with direction and speed) planning an operation in the hinterland driven in by an anonymous source.  The future operations are going to be a manifestation of human fantasy, definition and design – anytime anywhere. Over the past decade, technology has given the flesh to an age-old product adage, ‘whatever can be defined can be designed’, albeit in a shorter time frame, both in intent, context and content, given the unprecedented technological disruption.  The manifestation of the technology outreach whether obtrusively or unobtrusively, by kinetic and non-kinetic means, 3D printed or on an assembly line, deployed by state forces or non-state actors, will remain instruments for quick usage and quick impact.

Prognosis of Unmanned Autonomous Systems

Disruption in Military Affairs (DiMA)

The Revolution in Military Affairs so pronounced during the Gulf Wars, was driven by war scenes being witnessed in the living rooms relayed from the battlefield. But that was based on the technological revolution of the 1990s through to Y2K. Both technology driving revolution and nature of warfare have undergone significant changes, since then, over the past two decades. Powered by digital transformation, the new tech world order is defined by the invisibility of the digital warrior, popularly known as a hacker, and niche disruptive technologies which impact the entire bandwidth of military activities be it info gathering, intelligence, recce, surveillance, training, logistics, decision support, control of resources both for defensive and offensive operations. Further, the spectrum of conflict has enhanced from land, sea, air to cyber, space, psychological (Informational / mis-informational) and hybrid. In an overall analysis, the disruptive technologies, with or without a man in the loop, is about enhancing the velocity of the OODA loop, as the driver of decisive proactive actions while suffering minimal human casualties. The DiMA has ushered an era with the concept that “Victory is measured by Digital Unmanned Footprint”, for all those of us who would still like to believe that victory is measured by the foot.

Technology Driven Warfare

In the recent past events and military actions have demonstrated that the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) of military-like interventions have been unleashed and executed by embracing disruptive technologies. To recount a few major ones, the explosion damaging a centrifuge assembly plant last July and the recent large-scale blackout at Natanz, which the country’s Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged had damaged the electricity grid or the killing of Iran’s chief nuclear scientist, have portrayed the shape of things to come, in the spectrum of conflict. In a similar vein, though by non-state actors, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels attack Aramco refinery in the Saudi capital on 12 Apr 21 (and earlier on 14 Sep 19), using bombs and missiles laden drones, is an offensive act on the Kingdom’s energy and security installations. These drones reportedly flew more than 500 km in an autonomous mode and hit their targets with precision. But an apt example of a decisive war through technology is the Armenian -Azerbaijan War. It is, in effect, the first war in the history of modern warfare that has been won almost entirely on the strength of drone warfare. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan started on 27 September, over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh Region. While Armenia only fought with tanks, artillery and air defence systems, Azerbaijan relied heavily on UAAS (drones), specifically the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made Kamikaze drones. The two drones carried bombs of up to 55 kg and 15 kg, respectively, and proved very useful when it comes to precise targeting of missile batteries, air defence radars and all equipment that emits radiation or has a sizeable radar or thermal signature. It is no brainer then, that Armenian forces and Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenians, who had been living in the disputed region, lost approximately185 tanks, 45 armoured fighting vehicles, 44 infantry fighting vehicles, 147 towed artillery guns, 19 self-propelled artillery, 72 multi-barrel rocket launchers and 12 radars while Azerbaijan’s losses were only one-sixth. The lethality of  UAS is unparalleled in man vs machine warfare.

Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS)

Swarms of Unmanned Systems

AI platforms are being used to configure ground-based unmanned systems (robots), aerial unmanned systems and both sea-based and underwater/submersible unmanned systems and hybrid systems like ground and aerial swarms. These technologies are game-changers in future warfare and a paradigm shift from automation (business intelligence) to autonomous systems, thereby graduating to LAWS.


Future operational paradigms would be driven by autonomous technology-based action interspersed with military troops intervention depending on the criticality of the mission. Thus, man in the loop and man out of the loop missions can be generated as command, control, communication, computer, cyber, combat ISR (C6ISR) driven weapon platform systems. In effect, C6 ISR based autonomous weapons systems are lethal devices that have been empowered by their human creators to survey their surroundings, identify potential enemy targets, and independently choose to attack those targets on the basis of sophisticated algorithms. These systems typically comprise a seek and respond system. Seek is an autonomous pivot which could be land, ship or aerial platform with computer-based systems, application software configured as C6ISR based decision support, tightly integrated with the respond strike autonomous system mobile manoeuvre arm comprising combat platforms both kinetic and non-kinetic in an automated system with a man in the loop or autonomous systems with a man out of the loop. Such systems require the integration of several core elements: a mobile combat platform, such as a drone aircraft, ship, or ground vehicle; sensors of various types to scrutinize the platform’s surroundings; processing systems to classify objects discovered by the sensors; and algorithms directing the platform to initiate attack when an allowable target is detected. The U.S. Department of Defence describes an autonomous weapons system as a “weapons system that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.”

Technology Stack

LAWS is, therefore, a program that will encapsulate a number of disruptive technologies. Many semi-autonomous weapons in use today rely on autonomy for certain parts of their system but have a communication link to a human that will approve or make decisions. In contrast, a fully autonomous system could be deployed without any established communication network and would independently respond to a changing environment and decide how to achieve its pre-programmed goals. Lethal AWS may create a paradigm shift in how we wage war. This revolution will be one of software; with advances in technologies such as facial recognition and computer vision, autonomous navigation in congested environments, cooperative autonomy or swarming, these systems can be used in a variety of assets from tanks, ships to small commercial drones. They would allow highly lethal systems to be deployed on the battlefield that cannot be controlled or recalled once launched. Unlike any weapon seen before, they could also allow for the selective targeting of a particular group based on pre-defined target parameters. In effect, LAWS will facilitate a deep strike with precision, thereby reducing collateral damage. Viewing LAWS from a technology lens, it comprises almost all niche disruptive technologies AI, sensor technologies and IoT, unmanned autonomous aerial and ground-based platforms, AR /VR, cyber, electronic warfare, directed energy weapons, quantum technologies, big data analytics, nanotechnologies and geo- spatial technologies. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas is an apt example of the use of AI and precision in targeting. Imagine this technology in the hands of non-state actors /terrorists/militants, the results can be extremely disastrous.

Driven by nano technology, a new manifestation of UAS is palm top UA aerial S (UAAS) and more importantly ORNITHOPTERS which are virtual birds that could be deployed in seeker shooter mode. This is the next threat that we need to prepare for a swarm of quadcopters /Hexa or Octo- copters/ mini helicopters / fixed-wing UAAS or flock of ornithopters deployed in military operations in rear areas on sensitive installations and important humans as targets. In sync with the unmanned aerial arm is the unmanned ground systems (UGS) including robots powered by fuel engines / electric power / solar power /hybrid,  eUGS which could work in isolation or synergy for effect.

Way Forward – An Antidote

Unmanned Autonomous Systems have also become a weapon of choice by non state actors and that is where the threat scenario becomes discomforting and of absolute concern. Other than a kinetic kill of UAAS which is a challenge, this threat a potent counter measure is a non-kinetic neutralisation through jamming which triggers a return to home command, thus exposing the point of launch. The following actions need to be institutionalised :

(a)   The Rule of Law

This calls for a strict regulation and licensed use of UAS akin to a pistol or small arm license for production and use. Aeromodelling and robot system hobbies will need to be channelised and regulated and those operating UAS must have a license/registration number. Drone Laws 2021 have been formulated  to include weight, payload and height restrictions, but these have to be enforced and dynamically improved to make them justiciable and effective. Mechanisms to detect and track down defaulters must be put in place and dealt with severely by appropriate punitive actions.

(b) Non-Kinetic Counter Measures

Non-kinetic measures like millimetric radars to detect and UAAS jammers to neutralise would need to be deployed in high-security zones and available with QRTs /police patrols to ward off the threat.

(c) Kinetic Counter Measures

Counter measures both kinetic and non-kinetic for swarm UAAS including ornithopter and UGS/robot-based and hybrid threat need to be designed and developed as a cost-effective solution. These would include EM spectrum based EMP and laser directed energy weapons.

(d) In House StartUps – Tri-Service Innovations

Seeker shooter and jammer solutions have developed in-house in the field Army and are effectively deployed. These rudimentary Grassroot innovative solutions need to be improved, prototyped, mass-produced and proliferated for military and civil use. There is a need to generate Start-Ups Army /Navy / Air Force /Tri-Service.

(e) Consortium Approach  A consortium approach to attempt proliferation of UAS and anti-UAS technologies is the need of the hour. Other than military use, these technologies have extensive applications in logistics, supply chain and optimum use of air space for the move of humans and material. There is a dire need to create collaborative programs, structures, policies comprising academia, R &D Organisations, Start-Ups, Tier 1,2 and 3  and Tri-Service institutions for creating a myriad of solutions to the myriad of problems. Application-based creative problem solving will be a game-changer.


The Unmanned Autonomous Systems are there to stay, deploy, deter, dissuade, destroy and disrupt. These have been deployed in tactical battle areas as an eye in the sky for beyond visual range recce and strike in a seek and respond (shooter) autonomous mode. There is a need to analyse and prepare for this threat with all its contingencies. The fable of ant and grasshopper is an apt example.

(a) The Fable

The ant works hard in the withering heat all summer building its house and laying up supplies for the winter. The grasshopper thinks the ant is a fool and laughs dances plays the summer away. Come winter, the ant is warm and well-fed. The grasshopper has no food or shelter so he dies out in the cold.

(b) The Moral

To succeed tomorrow, one has to start working today. Strategically speaking, those who do not plan for the long term will not succeed in the long term.

Let us make the right choices like the ANT and not be driven by the grasshopper syndrome. In fact, UAS and anti-UAS are no longer a choice it is a compulsion for future combat readiness and operational effectiveness – be it conventional, unconventional, hybrid or technology sovereignty, aatmanirbhar Bharat, Make in India,  StartUp Army,  innovative leadership  or economic development