Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Arming For Tomorrow: Envisioning Manned Unmanned Force Mix For Armed Forces

Commander Rahul Verma

‘Swavlamban’, the maiden seminar of the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) and Technology Development Acceleration Cell (TDAC), Indian Navy was held at New Delhi on 18-19 July 2022. Hon’ble Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi graced the occasion as the Chief Guest. Shri Rajnath Singh, Hon’ble Defence Minister was the Guest of Honour. The third session of this seminar was with aviation as its focus, examined the Future of Aviation in the Era of Algorithmic Warfare and the release of Unmanned Road Map for Indian Navy. The idea of human and machine together is far more powerful than either the human or machine by themselves, continuing with the efforts, Indian Navy is conducting seminar, ‘Arming for Tomorrow- Envisioning the Manned and Unmanned Force Mix for Armed Forces’ on 18 Oct 22 during the Defexpo 2022.

The unmanned debate has undergone a similar transition from hype to recognition of shortcomings, to relative acceptance of existing capabilities while looking ahead to the next transformative technology that will almost inevitably be a game changer. The early years of the United States’ unmanned campaign saw publications touting the potential of these vehicles and other robotics to revolutionise warfare. More current critiques appear to have accepted unmanned in their present form but warn against what they see as the next step of autonomous attack. The US intervention in Syria in 2012 highlighted the shortcomings of that generation of unmanned systems in a contested air environment, which have similar impact today also. 

Furthermore, the ongoing debate among the United States and allies at both the diplomatic and domestic politics levels has likely constrained the expansion of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) programs against al-Qaeda affiliates. The recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and ongoing Russian operations in Ukraine has brought out the importance of the unmanned systems to the fore front. There are still substantial technological barriers to autonomy remaining, overcoming them would still leave economic, political, legal, and organisational challenges to fielding significant numbers of fully autonomous aircraft in wartime situations.

A conceptual design depicting manned-unmanned aircraft teaming; Representational Image

The basics of air-to-air combat are largely an algorithmic function. Trainee pilots are trained extensively on basic fighter manoeuvres to emphasise mastery of the textbook procedures. If future air combat closely mirrors the tactics and proficiency levels we assume today, it is conceivable that programmers could develop an automated system to identify the threat environment and execute pre-programmed manoeuvres based on the inputs, much as a trainee pilot would. This program would be complex, significantly more so than similar decision-matrix programs for autonomous flight route programs in other RPAs such as Global Hawk or even in the Unmanned Surface Vessels. Enabling this kind of envisioned autonomous operations would demand significant leaps forward in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), allowing future Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) to become learning entities that can adapt to circumstances and develop new tactics to overcome an adversary.

Although the ability to run programs that calculate more efficient outcomes creates the impression of AI, the aircraft/ship is ultimately tied to a large data set of pre-programmed options and runs a decision-making process. Theoretically, this process could be built to an extreme degree whereby all possible manoeuvres and assumptions about terrain, weather, and adversary logic are programmed, allowing the computer to better access likely outcomes and make decisions; however, that is a fundamentally different dynamic than a true learning process. Even so, many of the approximations made in the program must be incorporated in advance of conflict. Without a true leap forward in AI, reliance on extending approximate dynamic programming as the backbone of autonomous unmanned operations whether airborne or on the surface of water would be a significant gamble in many scenarios for the foreseeable future.

The just war tradition, codified in Jus ad bellum and Jus in bello, serves as the baseline for both formal and customary international law regarding the conduct of war and belligerents. Jus ad bellum represents a set of principles designed to limit the horrors of war by providing justification for military action, defining the scope of conflict, and ideally laying the groundwork for re-establishing peace at the end of hostilities. Jus in bello is generally summarised by two criteria discrimination and proportionality. Underlying the just war criteria is the notion of responsibility, both of states and actors, for the initiation and conduct of war. Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVS) and future UCAVs present a series of issues for both aspects of just war tradition, many of which can be normalised within the existing framework of international law but require greater public discussion and knowledge of unmanned operations and potential actions by autonomous systems.

Many nations are looking for manipulating the advantages of human strategic guidance coupled with the tactical perspicacity of human-machine combat teaming and machine-machine combat cooperation such as distributed lethality, collaborative attack operations and swarming. All of this will result in more transparent battlefield and replace networks that do not have AI components integrated into them. This gives birth to the concept of ‘Hyper War’ or ‘Wars of Cognition,’ where combat decision making will be so rapid, accurate, and relevant it will replace the human element.

The debate over a future of autonomous systems dominating warfare versus a moral argument against automation represents only the most recent fault line in this ongoing dialogue. Rather than picking winners between rival factions, the organisational goal must be to eliminate destructive competition between the factions and to progress refocusing on the larger mission and the tools necessary to carry it out. As per Dr Peter Layten, human responsibility and accountability are central to the ethics and laws of war. Applying intelligent machine technologies to warfare will not fundamentally alter this concept While it may be that machines do some tasks much better than humans, the actions of intelligent machines are inherently inexplicable. Only humans can ‘do’ with responsibility and accountability. The future of the warfare does not involve a race to or from autonomy but the question of how the organisation can integrate manned and unmanned systems into a single force that maximizes combat power. 

Cdr. Rahul Verma is presently posted at TDAC looking after Unmanned Systems and Aviation Innovations. He is a Seaking Pilot with 4,000 flying hours experience. The officer is also a qualified RPA crew with an extensive experience in unmanned flying operations. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Law and a Post Graduate Diploma in Autonomous Systems and Product management


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