Revolutionising Mech Operations: Unleashing the Power of Unmanned Systems in MUMT

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By Col. Narendra Tripathi (r)

This article is focused on the use of technology that govern the augmentation in the conventional methods of Mech operations. The Battle tactics involve a combination of strategic, operational, and tactical considerations. The effectiveness of tank warfare depends on the coordination and integration of various elements to achieve battlefield objectives. We are living in times when many technologies are growing multi-fold in the warfighting domain giving an edge to the existing art of war specially to the Mech battlegrounds creating new opportunities and challenges at the same time.

1.         Traditional methods, proven effective over time in achieving success and winning wars, have been straightforward. However, in the evolving landscape of modern warfare, elements are undergoing transformations to enhance the positions of ground troops, essentially refining warfighting approaches. Undoubtedly, this process is disruptive and squarely falls within the realm of unconventional methods, aiming to overpower the enemy through technological superiority.

2.         In an operational setting, a commander’s pivotal focus lies in decision-making based on information, considering the dynamic nature of battle spaces, the operational tempo, and evolving areas of interest. It’s crucial to recognize that Mech battles are inherently mobile, demanding enhanced communication ranges, clear delineation of permissible areas, preservation of combat potential, and minimizing information retrieval delays. Before delving further, let’s briefly review the essential components of preparing for a tank battle, not with the intention of lecturing but to provide insights. This comprehension sets the stage for understanding how warfighting concepts can be enhanced and on what basis. Effectiveness in tank tactics necessitates a thorough consideration of the capabilities and limitations of the entire force composition. Reconnaissance and intelligence gathering play a vital role in identifying the enemy’s positions, strengths, weaknesses, and potential obstacles. This information aids in comprehending the enemy’s capabilities, intentions, and the overall battlefield environment. It’s important to note that all these seemingly routine aspects take on a new perspective when viewed through the lens of disruptive technology.

3. Whether in plains, high altitudes, or Built-up Areas, tank battles unfold in open spaces, offering little cover to ensure unhindered mobility and full utilization of firepower. Analyzing the terrain becomes crucial for selecting advantageous positions and exploiting natural cover. Tactical plans entail the synchronized deployment of tanks to engage and neutralize enemy forces. Employing flanking manoeuvres and utilizing cover and concealment are common tactics to secure advantageous firing positions. Communication and information flow stand out as pivotal aspects of tank battles, ensuring effective command and control. Vital for coordinating movements, modern tanks are equipped with advanced communication systems for real-time information sharing. Clear command structures and effective leadership guide tank units, allowing decentralized command for flexibility and rapid decision-making.

4.         In the heat of battle, logistical support is indispensable for tanks, ensuring a steady supply of fuel, ammunition, and maintenance. Tank units prepare to face anti-tank weapons and other threats, employing countermeasures like smoke screens, electronic countermeasures, and coordinated defensive actions. Successful tank tactics demand adaptability to evolving battlefield conditions, necessitating adjustments based on the dynamic situation. Achieving success in Mech warfare requires a blend of mobility, firepower, situational awareness, and effective coordination with other battlefield elements. Flexibility and adaptability to dynamic scenarios are key elements. The purpose of elucidating these tank tactics is to foster a mindset that thinks beyond traditional approaches and embraces new technological possibilities.

Man-Unmanned Teaming

5.         The integration of unmanned systems into Mech units has become a focal point in recent years, marking the onset of a new era in warfare. In the ever-evolving landscape of Mech warfare, technological advancements have been a persistent pursuit for gaining strategic superiority. Internationally, a profound shift is underway in the realm of Mech operations, driven by the revolutionary concept of Man-Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) is ushering in transformative changes, incorporating a variety of unmanned systems like tethered drones, swarm of drones’ technology, Logistics drones, Loiter Munitions/ kamikaze drones and unmanned robots into Mech units. This article emphasizes the imperative need for comprehensive and consolidated solutions that seamlessly integrate these technologies and explores the synergies arising from their collaborative utilization. Additionally, the article delves into the impact of unmanned technology, addresses challenges in training, considers sustainability, and assesses the overall effectiveness of MUMT across diverse operational scenarios.

6.         Foremost in the realm of tank battles is the concept of MUMT denoting the collaborative operation of manned and unmanned assets towards shared mission objectives. Within Mech battle scenario, MUMT represents a distinct dimension, offering optimization for dynamic warfare. Deploying manned and unmanned assets as a unified entity, rather than independently, maximizes the uncrewed element’s value as a force multiplier, bolstering lethality and survivability on the battlefield. Autonomous capabilities within the unmanned component minimize human intervention to mission goal input, rules-of-engagement definition, and combat task authorization. This autonomy prevents human overload and ensures synchronization between manned tanks and various unmanned systems. MUMT plays a crucial role in several primary applications:

  • Surveillance
  • Reconnaissance
  • Post Battle-damage assessment
  • Electronic warfare
  • Data and communications relay/interface between various manned or unmanned platforms
  • Logistics
  • Opportunity attacks through Loiter Munitions /Kamikaze drones
(Pic 1: Representation of MUMT in Mech ops)

7.         MUMT as a concept, brings together human operators and unmanned systems to enhance overall effectiveness in Mech combat scenarios. This section addresses the specific roles that unmanned systems play in coordination with human operators and explores how MUMT can adapt to various operational scenarios. Can we call the MUMT with a Mech formation a system of systems? Yes, it is, but has it been thought about like that by the user since these systems are often procured independently, which may not truly integrate? Let’s explore these system types: –

(a)        Logistic Unmanned systems: Drones and robots with substantial payload-carrying capability are used for improving the mobility and support of Mech units by addressing logistical challenges. This section examines the types of payloads these systems can carry and how this contributes to the logistical efficiency of Mech units. Considerations for maintaining and replenishing these logistics drones in the field are also discussed. These drones can be part of the Swarm or can operate as a standalone system under central command control for medical supply delivery, ammunition transport, and resupply missions i.e. to improve the mobility and sustainability of Mech units in the field. Technically its easier said than done, the right choice of unmanned system design for the right type of payload is crucial. Remember we are not talking about equivalents of agriculture drones here which can carry high payloads but with minuscule endurance and range.

(Pic 2: Hexacopter based Logistic Drone)

(b)        Tethered Drones on Board Tanks: The integration of tethered drones on tanks is a novel approach that improves persistent reconnaissance, surveillance, and communication capabilities. They being tethered take the continuous power supply and hence have increased operational endurance. However, this technology has seen very limited exploration among the Unmanned systems may be due to limited players in the domain. In technology, the challenge is posed by the laden weight of the tethering cable which needs to be kept in mind while designing the drone.

(Pic 3: Tethered Surveillance Drone)

(c)        Swarm of Drone Technology: Swarm of drone technology is a paradigm shift in Mech combat scenarios. This section discusses the various applications of swarm drone technology and evaluates specific tactics or strategies that have demonstrated effectiveness in enhancing battlefield awareness and offensive capabilities. Similar to bee colonies, this swarm of drones involves coordinating and controlling multiple drones to achieve a common goal ensuring cohesive formation without colliding with each other which performing flocking, schooling or foraging. India has developed heterogeneous (having variety of drone types) swarm of drone which can be deployed on diverse missions, including surveillance, reconnaissance, and offensive actions, covering gaps thus enhancing capabilities of Mech forces in terms of flexibility, redundancy, and collaborative decision-making. These drones are designed to undertake autonomous missions based on sensors, algorithm and task at hand however can be controlled individually in manual and semiautonomous modes for any specific objective.

(Pic 4: Swarm of Drone demo at Army Day parade 2021 at New Delhi. Courtesy: https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2021/01/15)

(d)        Loiter Munitions/ Kamikaze Drones: Development and deployment of loitering munitions or kamikaze drones for precision strikes on enemy targets. Agile and adaptable drones designed for offensive actions and target elimination. Here we are assuming the Kamikaze drones are on board the Mech systems and can be launched on-call based on the operational requirement. These systems under direct control with humans in the loop with their limited payload can be effective in disrupting the enemy movement by targeting the crew and sights. Technically the most important part of such systems is the payload, hovering time and time to target. They need to act fast before they can be countered.

(Pic 5: Micro & Nano FPVs as Kamikaze drones)

(e)        Unmanned Robots: Probably these are most underrated systems that can actually bring the highest value in a Mech war zone. The capability is not restricted for any factor unlike the unmanned aerial systems. These can be designed for a variety of roles on the same system. A tracked system that can be operated autonomously as well as manually can be used for carrying heavy payloads, as a stretcher moving human casualty, with a robotic arm to handle ordnances, for mine detections with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and off course for ISR roles. Smaller systems in numbers can be made configured into swarms and are the best to be utilized for obtaining situational awareness and ground-based kamikaze attacks.

(Pic 6: Miniature tracked UGV)

(f)         Communication and Command Structure: Seamless

communication between manned and unmanned systems is essential for successful integration into Mech units. This section explores how communication is managed and the command structures in place to coordinate the actions of both human and unmanned elements during combat. Integration of advanced communication systems to ensure seamless coordination between manned and unmanned elements is a must. Systems in silos can hinder the ops due by overwhelming the communication bandwidth and higher susceptibility of getting spoofed. This necessitates a dedicated development of robust command structures for effective control and utilization of unmanned assets.

Challenges Faced & Possible Solutions

8.         As the armed forces introduce an increasing number of these subsystems, MUMT is becoming a reality, albeit in isolated instances, which is somewhat acceptable given the diverse operational and terrain conditions in the Indian subcontinent. However, the real challenge lies in achieving uniformity to establish centralized command and control, effective system training, lifecycle sustainment, and ensuring redundancy. Therefore, there should be a greater emphasis on standardization and commonality of parts within these systems.

9.       Attaining successful integration of MUMT demands specialized training for tank crews and operators. This section explores existing training programs and additional skill sets necessary for effectively overseeing the integration of such technologies. The complexity intensifies when there is a lack of dedicated and trained personnel with these specific skill sets. Since the domain of Unmanned systems so diverse imparting training through actual systems considering its dynamic manoeuvrability is a tough call.

Here again, technology can play a vital role in crew training by use of a combination of simulators based on immersive technologies i.e. Virtual / Augmented / Mixed Realities(VR/AR/MR). These technologies are not hardware-heavy and extends our visualization from 2D to 3D to real-scale immersive 3D. Also called Extended reality technology can be explained as under: –

  • Virtual Reality: Can take us anywhere.
  • Augmented Reality: Can bring us Anything.
  • Mixed Reality: Gives the ability to interact with Virtual and Real worlds, a hybrid of VR and AR.
(Pic 7: Immersive Tech based Simulators)

10.       When managing a diverse array of systems across different sectors in a theatre, questions naturally arise how to guarantee sustained functionality given the challenges related to uniformity and the availability of subsystem parts. The greater the variety of system types, the broader and more intricate the range of spare parts, requiring dedicated supply chains to ensure Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO). It is essential to establish a comprehensive inventory of these subsystem parts at different levels of repair and replenishment, accompanied by a full range of skills for repairs at each level. For sustenance training for these systems again simulators with immersive tech can be used.

11.       Extensive field trials, technology demonstrations, and past deployments have generated substantial data in the form of feedback regarding the practicality and effectiveness of these technologies. Utilizing this data for optimized analysis with AI can determine the precise management of sustainment resources. While this may seem futuristic, it is conceivable that, in the future, tools will be implemented to streamline the selection of sustainment model for these financially significant systems.

12.       Another key area of emphasis is the Autonomy of unmanned systems in MUMT. Progress in autonomous capabilities for drones enables them to function independently or in cooperation with human operators. Currently, on a scale of 0 to 5, ranging from “No” to “Fully autonomous” systems, the existing technology provides level TWO and THREE for unmanned systems utilized in MUMT—indicating partial or conditional automation where the operator retains responsibility for operations or has a fallback option to take over system autonomy. Ongoing research and development endeavours are directed towards elevating autonomy in MUMT, tethered drone technology, and swarm drone capabilities to level FOUR. This level represents a stage where there is a limited role for humans in the loop, aiming for improved decision-making, adaptive behaviour, and the incorporation of self-learning algorithms to enhance effectiveness on the battlefield.

(Pic 8: Drone based Change detection of given area of interest using AI ML)

13.       Autonomous systems are crafted to accomplish predefined objectives in dynamic environments, adept at collecting information and operating for prolonged periods without human intervention. These systems possess the capability to engage in independent decision-making. Equipped with an AI core, sensors, communication systems, actuators, and decision-making algorithms grounded in machine or deep learning, they require additional features. This includes redundancy, integration with cybersecurity measures adhering to ethical and legal frameworks, and the incorporation of suitable human-machine interfaces.

(Pic 9: Multiple Attribute detection using AI ML)

Conclusion

14.       In summary, the successful evolution of Mech operations hinges on seamlessly incorporating state-of-the-art technologies, cultivating a mutually beneficial connection between humans and unmanned systems. It is crucial to amalgamate these innovations into a holistic solution to ensure the continual success and efficiency of Mech units on today’s battlefield. The victor will be determined not solely by the development of superior technology, but rather by the optimization of its utilization through an efficient and effective operational plan, coupled with a comprehensive sustainment strategy.