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India, US join hands to develop a range of warfighting tech and systems

The first of the three "near-term" projects is an "air-launched, small UAS"

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

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One of the key areas in which US is planning to tie up with India is aircraft carrier technology

Seeking to galvanise the defence partnership, the two countries on Thursday signed a joint statement of intent (SoI) that formalised their intention to co-develop a range of cutting-edge warfighting technologies and systems for their militaries.

US Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord said the technologies being discussed include “things such as virtual augmented reality (VAR), air-launched unmanned airborne systems (UAS), networked operations, brand new weapon and light-weight ammo (ammunition) designs.”

Lord is in Delhi for the 9th meeting of the India US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which she co-chairs with India’s Secretary for Defence Protection, Subhash Chandra. The DTTI was set up in 2015 to fast-track defence ties. During Thursday’s DTTI meeting, both the nations agreed to co-develop three specific projects in the near-term, two in the mid-term and two in the long-term. Lord clarified that “near-term” meant about six months.

The first of the three “near-term” projects is an “air-launched, small UAS”, which is a drone swarm that is launched from an aircraft to overwhelm enemy defences. “There are some small, innovative companies here in India that have technology that could be applied to air-dropped UAS and swarming. There is a high level of interest on both sides,” stated Lord.

The second one is the “lightweight small arms technology” project. This involves building rifles, carbines and machine guns from lightweight polymer cast material. Even the ammunition is cast from plastic, to reduce weight. US firm, Textron, is already working on this technology. It would partner an Indian firm to develop and build small arms for India. The third project is in the field of “intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance (ISTAR),” which is command and control software that enables coherent battlefield command.

Of the mid-term projects, the first, which relates to “maritime domain awareness”, is termed “Sea Link Advanced Analysis”. Its software analyses shipping passing through an area, such as the Indian Ocean, and differentiates innocent commercial shipping from hostile warships. This uses artificial intelligence (AI), for which skilled Indian software engineers would co-develop the algorithms. The second project is called “virtual augmented mixed reality for aircraft maintenance (VAMRAM).” This is a teaching aid for technicians learning how to maintain a combat aircraft. It involves wearing a VAR headset to walk through the maintenance experience. Several Indian start-ups already have the capability to build and customise VAR.

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Among the long-term projects, the co-development of “terrain-shaping obstacles” involves slowing enemy manoeuvre forces by increasing the lethality of traditional obstacles such as mines and barbed wire.

Finally, the second long-term co-development project is called the “counter UAS rocket artillery and mortar” or CU-RAM. This involves developing highly accurate weapons systems to physically neutralise enemy drones or drone swarms.

“This is an area that the US is focusing on and it is interesting to Indians so we believe there are a lot of technologies that could be exchanged there,” said Lord.

Apart from the seven projects specified in the SoI, there are other areas as well in which both the nations have cooperated. “Aircraft carrier technology cooperation (ACTC) is one of the key areas that we are looking at. It is not on the SoI, but all projects are not mentioned there,” she said.

Navy sources say ACTC is less about incorporating US systems and platforms into India’s next indigenous aircraft carrier, and more about learning from the world’s premier aircraft carrier operator — the US Navy. Lord admitted that the DTTI has faced criticism in the past. This was due to lack of progress on four high-profile pilot projects that were identified for co-development during former US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015.

These included the co-development of Raven micro-UAS; mission-specific interiors for C-130J Super Hercules aircraft; a mobile electric-hybrid power source, and protective clothing for soldiers in a nuclear contaminated battlefield. None of these have seen the light of day.

Lord also revealed that a group set up to collaborate on developing high-performance, aerospace jet engines has now been scrapped. “We could not come to an understanding of what exportable (engine) technology would be useful to the Indians,” she admitted.

First Published: Fri, October 25 2019. 01:23 IST