India’s tech play for naval leadership

WMSV II unmanned surface vessel undergoing tests (Credit: DRDO)
WMSV II unmanned surface vessel undergoing tests (Credit: DRDO)

The Indian Navy is fast-tracking efforts to develop and deploy new digital naval systems, including advanced unmanned vessels, to position itself as the leader in maritime security for the Indian Ocean region. Vital for global trade, the region extends from the east coast of Africa to Indonesia and Australia. Two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments and one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic traverse the ocean. So, the stakes are high indeed.

Key to the Indian Navy’s digital transformation is its focus on technology developed in India, for reasons of resilience, security and the opportunity to become a technology leader.

India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, or DRDO, began programmes to develop unmanned systems for the Navy more than a decade ago. Efforts received a boost in 2021 with the announcement of the ‘Integrated Unmanned Roadmap for Indian Navy’, which aims to coordinate government and private sector efforts to develop advanced technologies for navy requirements at home.

A key driver of India’s efforts to modernise and digitise its navy is the apparent increase in activity from the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) in the Indian Ocean region and China’s expanded used of unmanned vessels. China has been conducting annual joint naval exercises with Iran and Russia in the Gulf of Oman, at the north-most tip of the Indian Ocean since 2019. There have also been reports that China might establish a naval base in Pakistan.

During the past few weeks, the Indian Navy has announced several new unmanned systems initiatives. The navy’s first Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), called ‘Neerakshi’ (meaning ‘eyes in the water’), developed by state-owned Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) and Aerospace Engineering Private Limited (AEPL), was launched last month. The 2.25 metre AUV will be used for underwater surveys, mine detection and mine disposal.

The navy has also confirmed plans to put its new 15 metre Autonomous Fast Interceptor Boat through sea trials beginning after the monsoon season. Developed by the DRDO’s Weapons and Electronic Systems Engineering Establishment (WESEE) and Bharat Electronics (BEL), the USV is designed for maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and has a maximum speed of 30 knots (55.56 kpmh).

However, these are just two of many naval defence technology projects under development. The digital transformation of the Indian Navy also runs much deeper than unmanned systems alone. A new SDR-NC (software-defined radio – naval communications) has now been deployed across all warships. Meanwhile, WESEE is currently developing a new-generation of data communications system.

Another new leap forward is the navy’s new AI-powered Combat Management System (CMS). The system enables rapid threat assessment and faster reaction-times, supported by its own decision-support tools. Currently under testing, the CMS will be built into all warships commissioned from 2024.

This intensive effort could see the Indian Navy quickly become one of the most digitally advanced in the world.

by Carrington Malin