Navy of the future

Thinking beyond traditional warfare architectures and adopting emerging technologies are essential to win future combats at sea

By Author Commander Dr Shekhar Murthy   |   Published: 5th Dec 2019   12:05 am Updated: 4th Dec 2019   9:34 pm

Artificial intelligence (AI), coupled with Internet-of-Things (IoT), is making a phenomenal impact on warfare strategies and defence preparedness. The world today is hugely data-driven, and sophisticated algorithms provide context and reliability to AI platforms. The future of warfare is charting a trajectory towards Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs), a kind of military robot that can independently search and engage targets based on algorithms, pattern-recognition and fuzzy logic.

In the context of the Indian Navy, warships and platforms at sea have seen a tectonic change. Integrated platform management systems, electronic warfare and communication systems, and rule-based application of algorithms are in vogue. The design and building of sophisticated warships and submarines in our shipyards have been demonstrated in the Indian Navy over the past decades. Over the years, the Navy has shown its mettle and admirably protected the Indian shores and our oceans.


Digital Shipbuilding

While the Navy must feel gratified on its glorious accomplishments and steady growth, it must also engage in sombre introspection to consolidate resources, improve operational readiness, and fine-tune naval capabilities aligned with future warfare trends and strategies.

With regard to ship design, the Navy should adopt AI-driven strategies towards optimised hydrodynamic designs, structural robustness, space optimisation, agility and stealth. Digital shipbuilding and 3D printing will change design and production practices. Shipbuilding robots can accelerate the pace of ship production and thereby decrease costs in shipbuilding.

Increased deployment of unmanned vehicles in hostile environments should become part of operational deployment. Such systems require capabilities in sensor-design, geospatial technologies, real-time data analytics, surveillance and detection capabilities and AI-driven communications. The future naval ships will need to be agile and autonomously driven.

The Navy will require the intelligent and efficient management of its assets covering energy, health, data, and fleet management. In the future, these assets will progressively, include remote and autonomous operations.

The application of IoT with AI can immensely enlarge the scope and effective deployment of Nuclear, Biological, Chemical, and Damage Control (NBCD) both at the platform level and fleet operations. Early warning systems and automated corrective interventions can improve the seaworthiness of ships to meet operational and emergent commitments.

Communication Technologies

The Navy will need to develop and utilise communication technologies that necessarily embed nano-antenna and nano wireless communication protocols. These are essential mediums to harness the power of robotics and micro-robots. Advancements in 3D imaging and scanning technologies make ‘virtual presence’ a possibility augmented with holographic displays or shape-shifting nano-bots.

Leveraging AI with machine learning will require data standardisation and the effective use of cloud computing. Creating and delivering content securely and contextually require cyber-infrastructure. The data created both in operational and machinery system domains must be analysed to seek patterns of recurrence and address root-causes where failures disrupt operational readiness. Leveraging pattern recognition, clustering, machine learning (ML) algorithms will improve warship preparedness. In this context, the silo-structures of data collection must seamlessly merge with the cloud-supported data and analysed. The Navy of the future will be data-driven.

Although AI and robots can be trained to execute repetitive and manually intensive processes, and they can learn based on events and outcomes, AI-based machines still fall short of the ability to think on their own. While both humans and AI can accumulate experience, knowledge and skills, it is only humans who can put them into context. Therefore, the person behind the machine will always be at the helm. For the AI to succeed, interfaces between the human and machine need to be robust and efficient.

The future of the Navy will depend upon its ability to harness and leverage AI technologies primarily, data sources, communication paths and databases, algorithms, and interfaces. Of course, none of these comes cheap and requires a planned commitment of resources and money.

Competencies and Skills

Considering that the Navy of the future will be dominantly technology-driven, the Navy needs to enhance and build its competencies and skills accordingly. The Naval College of Engineering should, in its own right, vie to be a deemed-to-be-university. The university should become the hub for research and development, especially a centre for applied research, which along with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and public and private enterprises, should drive naval research requirements of the future.

The naval university should also develop the expertise to consult with the Navy on a project-by-project basis, solving current technical challenges and preparing for the future. The Navy should plan to utilise its expertise by employing the officers and sailors who leave the service prematurely, by engaging them on naval projects, at the naval university, DRDO and other public and private organisations dealing with defence projects.

The Navy of the future may also need services of specialist officers and sailors as cyber warfare engineers who will manage complex computer networks, tactical systems and vital information infrastructures. This specialist cadre will don the role of scientists who would develop tools, techniques and apps to protect the cyber-inventory of the Navy. Cyber warfare will need top-notch cyber specialists to meet emerging challenges.

The Indian Navy is growing stronger by the day. The road to the future requires consolidation of current resources, rationalisation of existing units, services and organisations; thinking beyond traditional warfare architectures; and, above all, adopting emerging technologies while simultaneously honing competencies and skills of the personnel to man future combats at sea. The Indian Navy will need an affirmative, visionary, innovative thinking to keep pace with future warfare strategies.

(The author served the Indian Navy between 1982 and 2003)

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