Imagining the future of Air Warfare takes us to a scenario where machines have taken over from humans and the side superior in this transformation has the upper hand.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one of the latest technological marvels to not only have taken the fancy of futurists, strategists and technologists, but also captivated the world.
Owing to the current situation, AI can easily be considered as a defence arm that has the capacity to bring enormous changes in this sector concurrently while causing massive disruption to the smooth and normal functioning of the world.
AI advancement demonstrates the ability to augment human thoughts and actions in countless areas, among which include the Command and Control (C2) of joint Air Power. To triumph in future wars, countries will require the capability to create multiple dilemmas across multiple domains at an overwhelming speed while preventing the enemy from doing the same. AI will provide the cognitive agility required to C2 forces in providing this capability over-match.
Apart from USA, China and Russia are the two other nations actively involved in enhancing their future air defence capabilities with significant investment in AI and machine learning technologies.
In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin, had commented, “Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence and cyberspace] will become the ruler of the world.” Sharing the similar thought, Beijing has said, “The rapid development of AI will profoundly change human society and life, and change the world . . . China must firmly seize the strategic initiative in the new stage of international competition in AI development.”
Command and Control-C2
The core element of AI is C2. This empowers Air Forces of the world to intercept adversaries violating their air space and launch a deterrent and a very quick attack. These days, a lot of countries are using Unmanned Armed Vehicles (UAVs) to carry out such operations.
UAVs are equipped with propulsion and navigation systems, GPS, sensors and cameras, programmable controllers as well as equipment for automated flights. All these equipment are linked with a computer program which is designed to conduct unambiguous tasks.
In 2018, Izvestia, a Russian daily reported that the Russian Air Force has successfully tested for the very first time an Air-defence Automatic Control System (ACS) fitted with elements of AI. The system has been designed to automatically analyse an aerial situation and issues recommendation on the use of arms. Now Russia is planning to induct this system in the S-300 and S-400 as well as Pantsir gun-and-missile anti-aircraft system.
NATO to replace AWACS with AI
NATO has decided to go for a technological spin by replacing its Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACSs) with artificial intelligence devices by 2035. AWACS system was designed by the US Air Force and was first installed on a Boeing 707 aircraft. This system was designed to detect, track and identify low-flying aircraft at distances of up to 400 km and high level targets at much higher distances.
Announcement of this replacement was made by Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General, NATO in 2019 while addressing an industrial forum in Washington, where he said, “The NATO AWACS fleet has been our eye in sky from ages and have been performing various tasks with great finesse. But now, the time has come to replace these old warriors with an advanced and swifter technological system to augment our reach.”
NATO has been using these aircraft to patrol American airspace after the terrorist attack of September 2001. Apart from that, AWACS were used during military operations in Afghanistan to neutralise terrorist activities of Islamic State terror outfits.
Netra by DRDO
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has also developed an Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&CS) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) called ‘Netra’. Installed on the Embraer ERJ 145 aircraft, the system has capabilities such as identification friend or foe (IFF), electronic and communication support measures, C-band line-of-sight and Ku-band SATCOM datalinks, etc. Currently, IAF operates two Netra early warning aircraft.
As the number of countries placing their bets on the development of AI-supported aerial systems go up, the future air war scenario can be visualised as more of a machine dominated activity rather than human’s involvement.
Technology for big data and AI is currently developing at a tremendous pace, and it has major potential impacts for strategic, operational and tactical military decision-making processes.
As such, operational benefits may be vast and diverse. The full potential of an AI-enhanced technology is yet be seen, and time needed for its capabilities to mature.