Digital transformation of defence Part I

‘Digital Transformation of Defence’, refers to the assimilation of new technologies, for meeting future operational requirements of armed forces. Rapid improvements in information and communication technologies, have greatly enhanced the potential to synergize the nation’s war-making capabilities, by bringing all elements of national power, on a digital platform. Some of the new technologies include Augmented Reality (AR), Autonomous Transportation Control (ATC), Robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), amongst others. To pragmatically visualize the application of these technologies, it is important to initially make assessments on the future of conflicts, in our subcontinent.

How will wars of the future be fought? 

To answer that question, one needs to look into the future. But, how does one look into (predict) the future? There are two schools of thought for predicting the future; the rationalists, who believe that the past (historical data) is a reliable method and the dreamers, who believe asymmetric changes, will alter the future, unrecognizably. Under the circumstances, it might be best to apply both schools of thought, see how disparate the predictions are; and then, if necessary, make practical accommodations.

The Rationalist School 

Since our Independence, in 1947, India has fought three wars and a major border skirmish with Pakistan (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1993). We have also fought a border war with China, in 1962. If the past, were a reliable prediction of the future, we should be prepared for the following scenarios: - 

(a)        A conventional war with Pakistan, under nuclear backdrop.

(b)        A conventional war with China, also under nuclear backdrop.

(c)        A two-front war with Pakistan and China, under nuclear backdrop.

(d)        Border skirmishes with Bangladesh and Myanmar.

(e)        Active participation in a naval blockade of the Straits of Malacca, with other allies or partners.

(f)        Naval blockade of Karachi Port for coercive diplomacy.

(g)        Power projection and establishment of temporary sea-control or sea denial in the Indian Ocean Region.

(h)        National contributions towards peace-keeping or peace-enforcement missions, under UN mandate. 

According to this school, India should continue to maintain its modern armed forces, with periodic upgrades. At this juncture, we also need to develop capacities for deployment of weapons in space, cyber warfare and integrated special forces. 

The Dreamers Club 

In 1989, the US Army commissioned a study to understand, ‘the changing face of war’. The scholar – author William S Lind, who was a member of the study, is credited with coining the term, ‘Generations of Warfare’. According to that study, there are four generations of warfare. The 1st generation of warfare was about massed armies. Generals with larger armies were expected to win. Wars in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia qualified as 1st Generation warfare. Perhaps, even our Mahabharat was 1st Generation warfare. 2nd Generation warfare commenced with the introduction of the machine gun and the artillery gun, into the battle field. These weapons were very effective killing machines and could profoundly impact the battlefield, from stand-off distances. The most obvious example of 2nd Generation warfare, was the 1st World War, fought between 1914 to 1918. Armies in Europe and Russia fought from trenches, wreaking havoc on each other and resulting in more than 17 million direct casualties. 3rd Generation Warfare brought mobility to the battlefield and revolutionized warfare.  The German Blitzkrieg, in the 2nd World War, was the first example of 3rd Generation warfare and resulted in the conquest of Europe, in just six weeks. Thereafter, the armor-led operations of Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian and Eric von Manstein, established the doctrine of 3rd Generation warfare.

The 4th Generation Warfare (4GW) is characterized by the blurring of lines between war and politics, non-combatants and combatants and governments lose their monopoly on combat forces. In 4GW, at least one of the combatants is a non-state actor. There are many examples of 4GW, in the world today. Terrorism in Kashmir, insurgency movements in NE, Maoist violence in central India, the Palestine movement in Israel, the US war in Afghanistan, amongst others. 


Nuclear deterrence has reduced the scope for all-out conventional war. It is as difficult to perceive the defeat of a nuclear power, as it is to estimate the costs to the victor. However, there still exists scope for conventional operations, with limited objectives. It is also important to maintain conventional deterrence, for unfriendly neighbors. The reduced scope of conventional warfare, has increased the attractiveness of 4GW, as an instrument of state policy. In the war between the state and the non-state actor, the latter may often be a proxy for an enemy state. In case of India and Pakistan, it is obvious that Pakistan has assimilated and adapted to 4GW, much better than India has. While Pakistan has nurtured offensive 4GW capabilities, India has preferred to strengthen defensive capacities. 

Thus, future of conflict in the subcontinent should continue to require capacities for limited conventional war. However, greater emphasis needs to be laid on developing offensive and defensive, 4GW capacities. In the series which follows, we shall illustrate applications of the new technologies (digitization of defence), in contemporary scenarios. 

Disclaimer:  The people and places in the succeeding series is fiction. Any resemblance to actual people or places is coincidental.

Applications with Public Search, Precision Targeting and Road Opening 

Scenario 1: Search of Public Buses 

The Present.   

The overcrowded bus pulls up at the check-post on the Srinagar – Baramulla road. Soldiers order the passengers to dismount; while one group of soldiers check the bus for explosives or weapons, another group screens the passengers, individually. A sniffer dog is brought in to the bus to sniff the articles of the passengers, to make the search more efficient. 

Outside the bus, passengers are lined up and are inspected by a weapon-wielding NCO; who, stares at each face, sometimes asks questions and often singles out suspects for more detailed interrogation. 

The NCO confronts a woman bundled in a shawl and asks her to remove the garment. The woman reluctantly removes the shawl to reveal a sleeping infant and the NCO moves on. The men in the line-up are sullen and definitely concealing their anger. They feel violated but helpless; and know it is wiser to keep quiet, rather than infuriate the soldiers. 

Comment:  Search of public buses is a standard practice in the Kashmir Valley. From internal security point of view, it is a necessary terrorist-control measure. Even if searches do not yield definitive results, the procedure places restrictions on terrorists and deter them from using the public transportation system. However, the procedure is unexceptionally unpopular with local Kashmiris and is perhaps, the most symbolic expression of distasteful central government imposition, on the people of the state. 

The Future  

The overcrowded bus pulls up at the check-post on the Srinagar – Baramulla road. Two soldiers wearing Augmented Reality (AR) visors, enter the bus. The soldiers are required to capture the face of each passenger, in the camera graticule of the AR visor. 

There is no need for passengers to dismount but they are required to present their faces, in the direction of the soldier, so that an optimum picture is captured. The images of passengers are automatically streamed over high-speed data-networks for verification against the central database of wanted terrorists. In case, one of the images scores a hit, a flash message is received by the team commander and the suspect is apprehended, before the soldiers dismount from the bus. Only the suspect’s baggage is removed for searching and there is no need for the remaining passengers to be harassed. 

Scenario 2: Precision Targeting

The Present 

The Provocation 

Shortly after midnight, six well-armed terrorists slip through the Indo-Pak border. They travel by foot to the Pathankot-Jammu national highway, where they stop a private vehicle. After killing the passengers and dumping their bodies away from the road, they commandeer the vehicle and travel to the bustling city of Jammu. Their target is the Army Public School, which provides primary and secondary education, to wards of armed forces personnel. 

The terrorists enter the school premises, as the morning assembly is in progress, dismount from the vehicle and begin firing indiscriminately into the assembled students and teachers. Bodies fall like pennies and survivors are forced into the Auditorium, where the terrorists await the reaction of the Indian Army. Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) from Army units respond speedily with some reaching the school, in less than 20 minutes. 

The soldiers succeed in killing two of the terrorists but as they approach the Auditorium, the remaining four terrorists detonate their suicide vests, in the midst of the hostages. The death toll is horrific, the nation aghast and the government promises that the perpetrators will not be spared. Within hours, the nation’s lead intelligence agencies have concluded that the attacks were carried out by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and their leader, Hafiz Saeed was the mastermind; who planned, assembled the terrorists, provided resources and even monitored the conduct of operations. 

The Reaction

The Indian Army’s reaction is the first; in cross-border firing, two Pakistani bunkers are completely destroyed and a Pakistani vehicle travelling alongside the Neelam River, is also destroyed. Pakistani Army responds and there is cross-border firing on multiple locations, along the LOC. A few days later, the IAF launches a strike on terrorist bases in POK and the armed forces of both countries are at high-alert. 

Indian media claims that several hundred terrorists have been killed and there are reports to suggest that even Hafiz Saeed has been injured, possibly even killed. Government of Pakistan discounts Indian claims, rejects that there were any casualties and a few weeks later Hafiz Saeed appears at a rally in Lahore and makes an anti-India speech. 

The Future 

Immediately after nightfall, a high-endurance quad-copter drone takes off from an IAF base on the Indo-Pak border. It flies nap-of-the-earth, barely above tree height, thus evading Pakistani radar coverage. It flies directly toward Muzaffarabad, where Hafiz Saeed is suspected to be visiting. 

Satellite imagery, with intelligence interpretation has identified the house, where the terrorist is suspected to be residing. However, the suspicion needs to be confirmed before undertaking the trans-border assassination attempt. Before dawn, the quad-copter reaches its destination and sets down, on the compound wall facing the front veranda and door, of the house. The high resolution camera in the quad-copter is focused on the front door and monitored in real-time, via satellite link to an Indian Army Operations room. 

Soon after dawn, the front door opens and a man walks into the veranda; he looks towards the hills and stretches. The camera captures the face and transmits the image to the Operations room. The image is processed by facial recognition software and confirmed as Hafiz Saeed. Simultaneously, an invisible laser in the quad-copter is activated to designate the target and a laser riding missile on an Indian Miraj 2000 flying over Indian airspace, more than 150 Km away is launched. The missile is guided to the quad-copter by GPS and thereafter rides the designating laser to the target.

From the time of launch over Indian airspace to hitting the target, the guided missile takes barely six minutes. In that time, even if Hafiz Saeed were to leave the veranda and withdraw into the house, it is unlikely that he could escape the kill-zone of the missile. 

Scenario 3: Paradox of Road Opening

The Present 

The Crisis 

Responding to a report of a Naxal attack at a nearby village, a CRPF QRT (Quick Reaction Team) is mobilised. Four vehicles carry the armed soldiers to the village; they comprise, two light vehicles, a bullet-proof (BP) personnel carrier and a truck. 

As the convoy speeds along the paved road, there is a massive explosion under the BP personnel carrier. The impact is so severe the vehicle is physically lifted into the air and flung off the road. The other vehicles in the convoy stop and soldiers rush towards the mangled remains of the personnel carrier. 

12 of the 15 occupants were killed instantly and the balance three are severely wounded. An IAF helicopter is pressed into service to evacuate the wounded to a service hospital. 

The Modus Operandi 

Investigations reveal that the explosives had been placed under the paved road, many months earlier. Naxals had anticipated the requirement and placed the explosives, for a future opportunity. Senior officers in government are concerned, because such incidents occur repeatedly and despite the loss of morale and heavy cost, there seems to be no viable solution to the problem. 

The Paralysis

Indian Army experts repeatedly point out the necessity of carrying out road-opening, prior to moving security force convoys. They draw examples of the road-opening efforts, currently being carried out on NH1A: Jammu – Srinagar and NH39: Dimapur – Imphal. Both these axes continue to be used by the Indian Army and a colossal effort is invested in securing the road; by, physically clearing ambush sites and checking for IEDs, prior to the move of convoys. However, the challenge for the CRPF is inadequate manpower. CRPF companies are strung out over hundreds of kilo-meters, in under-developed naxal-invested terrain. The CRPF, neither has the manpower nor the inclination, to permanently commit thousands of soldiers, only to maintain a garrison of less than 100 soldiers

The Future 

MHA in coordination with the Ministry of Science & Technology have coordinated a dedicated remote-sensing program with ISRO.  Indian remote-sensing, geo-stationary satellites now carry MHA transponders that monitor naxal-invested districts of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telangana and Maharashtra. Images from geo-stationary satellites, being at greater distance from the Earth, may have poorer resolution; but, sufficient to discern naxal preparations, along axes that have been attacked, in the past. The images are available in real time at CRPF control rooms, in naxal area. If unusual activity is discerned in the satellite imagery, drones with high-resolution cameras are dispatched to verify, on ground. CRPF convoys are only dispatched if both satellite and drone reports are normal. On the other hand, if satellite imagery flags an area and drones confirm naxal preparations for an ambush or IED attack, an offensive can now be planned. Literally, making the hunter the hunted.


In this first of a serial, we illustrated the impact of digitization in three combat operations; namely, conduct of public searches, precision-targeting an enemy of the state and road opening in the naxal belt. 

For better understanding, each situation was described in the present, with inherent shortcomings and in the future, explaining how those shortcomings could be overcome. In subsequent serials, we shall describe other practical applications, in digitization of defence.