Embracing Digital Innovations

Admiral Timothy Fraser, CB, Vice Chief of Defence Staff, UK and Subhash Chandra, IAS, Secretary Defence Production GOI provided the respective perspectives of the UK and the Indian government on how defence forces must prepare to meet the new digital world.

Background

In today's digital age, governments, businesses and citizens are all seeking to create new opportunities and efficiencies through the use of digital technologies. For defence agencies, the secure, fluid and timely flow of data and intelligence is the life-blood of modern military activity.  

Digital technology disruptions are accelerating geopolitical flux around the world. The dramatic drone strikes in Saudi Arabia claimed to be affected by the Houthi rebels, show the edge that technology can provide to even small-sized militias. The line between state and non-state actors is fast blurring.

Analysis

Admiral Timothy Fraser gave a wide perspective of the geopolitical realities that defence planners must be prepared to face while charting the map for the future. We are living through a period of tremendous change, and the strategic context instinctively feels less stable. This is undoubtedly fed by the exceptional scale and pace of technological change, the pervasiveness of information and the return of a form of great power competition. No longer are the traditional distinction between peace and war, home and away, state and non-state, virtual and reality as clear as they have been in the past. Our adversaries and competitors employing hybrid approaches and are exploiting new technologies in ways that can be outside of our legal and political norms, particularly in the cyber and space domains and the information environment. 

Upholding rules-based international system to ensure our peace and stability is vital in the face of these new threats, and we could be seen in a state of persistent competition. We all need to adapt our current approach if we have to pace with these trends. As well as being able to mobilize for the threats today, we need to mobilize the capabilities for the future. The defence sector, in particular, needs to transform itself, become more agile and this means working differently across governments with our allies, with our industrial partners to ensure we can counter those threats we face. 

Capabilities will have to be modernized over a wide range of options. In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), automation and machine learning offer plenty of opportunities to accelerate the pace of change. But it is increasingly difficult to retain a competitive edge. Collaboration with industry and allies becomes critical. Marrying the military-industrial base with digital technology is imperative, and it must go beyond research and innovation. "Not just R&D, but bringing it to the real world is key. In the UK we are focused on integration at every level," said Fraser. 

Technology is changing the battlefields and how we fight. It is also changing the balance between manned and unmanned system. However, much of the innovation resides outside of the governments or the defence forces. The defence must deepen its link with industry and academia. Admiral Timothy Fraser brought out that integration at every level was a key priority for the UK. Information advantage would be at the forefront of this process and a different relationship with industry was the need of the hour. Simultaneously governments should cut the bureaucracy and make it easier for the small and startup innovators in technology frontiers to be able to work with the defence sector.

Giving the India perspective, India's Secretary for Defence Production Subhash Chandra  said that geography forces us to stay ahead of the curve. "Wars and warfare are redesigned by digital and IT. We are transitioning from land, sea and air to battlegrounds in cyberworld and space," said Chandra. This presents challenges for productionisation in the Indian context. India has been looking at not just the physical part of production but also the organization of the production ecosystem. 

The induction and integration of various modern platforms are supported by defence PSUs and private sector in India. What China called the informationalization of war is a new domain for India. Actual wars will be short and intensive but are sure to be preceded by periods of operations that will be covert and will quickly expand to various domains that will impact everyday life. Asymmetrical warfare and role of non-state actors is important and countries need to device their responses to it. Reaction windows will be small in the case of terror attacks or actions by non-state actors. "That's why we need to have the right equipment such as those beyond the visual range. Corporatization of Ordinance Factory Boards is a step in that direction," he said. 

India has begun taking concrete steps already, and the 11th edition of Defence Expo 2020 will have its theme as digital transformation. There is a need to create dedicated defence corridors. Hence, the importance of collaboration with the industry and the need to respond at an institutional level. India has an extremely talented young generation of technology-savvy businessmen who are cooperating with government efforts through startups on defence-related equipment and processes.  

India's military effectiveness must be located at all the three levels of military activity: the strategic, the operational and the tactical. While overlapping, each is characterized by different actions, procedures and goals. This emphasizes the operational approach, underlining the importance of doctrines, tactics, combined arms, inter-service systems and their proper utilization on the battlefield, and makes a break from the narrative of observing capabilities centred on new military hardware as it is introduced in-service. If this primer succeeds in generating an honest debate on the military challenge China poses to India, it will serve its purpose. Concurrently the services are in the process revising doctrines and practices and wargaming them for efficacy. The recent announcement that India will have a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is a positive step forward towards creating integrated and joint structures. The CDS will hopefully draw together the military perspective and mil advice across all five environments -land, sea, air, space and cyber.

Transformation should lie at the heart of our new approach to defence. The development of transformational capabilities, processes, and force structures should be given strategic focus to meet the principal challenges under our defence strategy. India is already ceased with the necessity of transformation albeit without any documented national security guidelines or operating instructions, which are legislated or have the validation of at least the 'Cabinet Committee on Security' (CCS). In other words, the first step would be to create a draft security strategy based on many assumptions, like the foreign policy or the cumulative emerging threat scenario as appreciated by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA).

Assessment

  • With technology becoming more mobile, personal and social, there is a transformation in today's digital environment through the development of Augmented Reality (AR) capabilities. AR is rapidly becoming one of the most important enterprise-level technologies. AR-enabled smart glasses committed fewer errors and achieved a 25 per cent increase inefficiency. Boeing factory trainees assembling a mock aeroplane were 30 per cent faster and 90 per cent more accurate using AR-animated instructions on tablets versus those using PDF documents.
  • With digitization, transforming room-sized or vehicle-mounted systems into handheld or backpack-sized units, the warfighter gains unprecedented levels of mobility without sacrificing communications performance. 
  • There is a pressing need for a strong collaboration not just between countries with shared interests but also the industry and academia. 
  • While recognizing the worldwide trend of commercializing its defence production industry, India has to first get out of its PSU obsession which has served their purpose and is today an outdated concept and a liability. If we wish to really convert our defence industry into a Make in India reality, a transformational change is required with strong impetus from the innovative private industry
  • An empowered CDS could contribute immensely to the true integration of the Defence Budget by taking a non-partisan approach in the formulation of long-term procurement plans (LTPP) which look beyond the curve. Allocations for capital procurement will accrue from the defence strategy, under formulation, in a perspective which looks ahead over a couple of decades while deciding where to invest.

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