Advent of Adaptation Battle

Alignment of defence capabilities with contemporary challenges is paramount The conflict in Ukraine has witnessed the rise of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones as formidable military assets. Beyond traditional drones, a significant development occurred in late October 2022 when the Ukrainian navy executed a bold manoeuvre—launching an attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet using […]

Alignment of defence capabilities with contemporary challenges is paramount

The conflict in Ukraine has witnessed the rise of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones as formidable military assets. Beyond traditional drones, a significant development occurred in late October 2022 when the Ukrainian navy executed a bold manoeuvre—launching an attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet using seven Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs). Each USV, measuring 5.5 metres in length and boasting a gross weight of 1,000 kg, was armed with explosives and missiles. More such attacks took place later as well.
The use of USVs marked a pivotal moment in naval warfare, signalling their emergence as a potent force. This development is not exclusive to Ukraine, as major naval powers like the United States, United Kingdom, China, and France are rapidly diversifying their unmanned arsenal. Naval Unmanned Aerial Systems (NUAS) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) are increasingly being integrated into naval strategies, reflecting a broader trend towards the incorporation of unmanned technologies in modern naval warfare.

Unmanned Platforms
Naval Unmanned Aerial Systems (NUAS) represent a category of advanced drones specifically designed for ship-borne operations, seamlessly integrated into the host ship’s system. These systems exhibit launch and recovery capabilities similar to those found on aircraft carriers. Operating in synergy with their host ships, NUAS functions as sophisticated tools for various naval applications.
On the other hand, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), often referred to as underwater drones, operate beneath the water surface, sharing similarities with unmanned submarines. UUVs can operate remotely or autonomously, with the latter heavily relying on Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI plays a crucial role in functions such as autonomous navigation, obstacle recognition, avoidance, and the utilisation of advanced cameras and sensors.
Similarly, Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) can be both remote-controlled or autonomous. Autonomous functionality involves the extensive use of AI for tasks like navigation and obstacle management, coupled with sophisticated camera and sensor systems. While all three—NUAS, UUVs, and USVs—can carry munitions payloads for striking enemy warships, their predominant use so far has been in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The integration of AI enhances their capabilities and makes them valuable assets in modern naval operations.
This 15-metre-long USV is envisioned for maritime intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. According to Indian Navy sources, the vessel is expected to achieve a maximum speed exceeding 30 knots and will operate autonomously, featuring a “static and dynamic” obstacle collision avoidance system.
The collaborative effort behind the development of this USV involves the Weapon and Electronic Systems Engineering Establishment (WESEE), Bharat Electronic Ltd (BEL), and Goa Shipyard Ltd (GSL). The boat, already manufactured, was initially scheduled for trials from Goa to Mumbai in June. However, due to adverse weather conditions, particularly heavy rains in Mumbai, the trials have been rescheduled to November. Unfortunately, as of now, there is no further update on the status of these trials, indicating a potential delay in the testing phase.

An Era of Adaptation
The concept of an “adaptation battle” has been a defining aspect of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In light of this, India is faced with the imperative to adapt by integrating autonomous and robotic systems into its military infrastructure and cultivating sovereign production capabilities—a domain historically plagued by delays and challenges. The urgency for such adaptation is underscored by the accelerated deployment of autonomous technology in recent war scenarios, emphasising the need for India to position itself on the advantageous side of asymmetry in potential future conflicts.
The evolving threat landscape for naval forces unfolds in distinctive ways in littoral and open ocean operations. In littoral environments, the contest has intensified to the extent that manned naval forces could face formidable challenges in combat situations, even with enhanced self-defence capabilities. Despite efforts to fortify ships, there arises a critical juncture where the survivability and operability of naval forces in littoral areas become precarious. Consequently, there is a discernible shift towards entrusting unmanned systems with roles in these contested environments, signifying a pivotal role for autonomous technology in shaping the future of naval operations.
In the open ocean, a distinct set of dynamics is unfolding. The proliferation of long-range weapons capable of targeting naval forces thousands of miles away from an adversary’s coast is a prominent trend. For instance, China is actively pursuing a strategy of distribution to create a higher number of potential targets, aiming to disperse and dilute attacks across a wider array of contacts. However, this approach encounters limitations as the acquisition of manned platforms has its constraints, restricting the expansion of distribution.
The inherent limitations of distribution in open ocean scenarios are prompting a turn towards unmanned systems. Automation in this context goes beyond imbuing systems with intelligence for guidance and control. It involves equipping these systems with the capability to address mechanical failures, respond to unforeseen situations, and navigate in GPS-denied environments. The reliance on unmanned systems is becoming increasingly pivotal in augmenting the capabilities of naval forces in the open ocean, where traditional manned platforms face constraints in terms of distribution and scalability.

Other Side of the Coin
The ultimate goal is to introduce complexity for the adversary, and there are two fundamental approaches to addressing this objective.
In one scenario, a littoral combat ship and a fleet of unmanned surface vessels can be utilised to extend the reach, range, and persistence of the manned platform. While this approach enhances capabilities, it doesn’t fundamentally change how the adversary is engaged—it merely introduces a few additional targets for them to contend with.
Alternatively, a more strategic approach involves granting autonomy to unmanned systems, allowing them to conduct independent operations. This approach creates more challenging and complex scenarios for the enemy to navigate. By relinquishing tighter control, these unmanned systems become valuable assets in generating intricate operations or providing extended sensor capabilities for long-range engagements.

What is required?
Recognizing the swift evolution of naval warfare, the Indian Navy is actively advancing its “unmanned roadmap.” The wishlist includes the development of remotely operated and autonomous Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs), Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), and Naval Unmanned Aerial Systems (NUAS). The strategic advantage lies in these unmanned crafts, offering reduced manpower requirements, zero risk to personnel, lower operating costs, extended range, and improved speed and accuracy in data processing—resulting in a faster decision cycle. While the primary focus is currently on utilising these platforms for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) purposes, the potential for military applications remains open.
India’s regional rival, China, has made noteworthy strides in the field of unmanned ships, with drone vessels undergoing testing and practical deployment. Notable developments include the L30 unmanned patrol boat, equipped with radar and electro-optical systems, boasting a speed of over 35 knots and a range of 220 nautical miles. The Zhu Hai Yun Ocean survey ship stands out as China’s first seaborne drone carrier, capable of autonomous navigation and remote control, and accommodating over 50 unmanned systems in the air, on the sea surface, and underwater.
China’s deployment of obstacle breacher drone vessels in amphibious landing exercises demonstrates the versatility of these unmanned assets. These vessels, carried by landing ships, open up passages for landing troops by scattering explosives and breaching obstacles upon release.
The JARI multi-purpose unmanned combat vessel further underscores China’s prowess, with capabilities encompassing air defence, anti-ship, and anti-submarine missions. Despite its compact size, the JARI features a phased array radar system, vertical-launched missiles, and torpedoes, showcasing the multifaceted nature of China’s advancements in unmanned naval technology.
The Indian defence forces have frequently grappled with significant delays in the procurement and development of essential vessels and key projects not just in the maritime domain but also for the Indian Army and Airforce, whether it is about procurement of assault rifles or the requisite number of squadrons. These delays, often attributed to political and geopolitical factors, have direct consequences for the Indian defence apparatus, ultimately posing a threat to national security. Acknowledging this reality is crucial, as it underscores the imperative for India’s maritime security to align technologically with its adversaries.
The evolving landscape of modern warfare, particularly in the maritime domain, necessitates the adoption of advanced technologies to effectively address emerging threats. Delays in procurement and development not only impact the operational readiness of the Indian defence forces but also create vulnerabilities that adversaries may exploit. Recognizing the need for timely and strategic advancements in maritime security is imperative for India to maintain a robust defence posture and effectively counter potential challenges.
Addressing these delays and ensuring the timely implementation of maritime security initiatives is essential for India to keep pace with technological advancements and safeguard its national interests. The alignment of defence capabilities with contemporary challenges is paramount for maintaining a credible and effective defence posture in the maritime domain.

Vaibhav Agrawal is a senior defence Journalist.