The Defence Research and Development Organisation has been working on robotics to create unmanned ground vehicles for reconnaissance and surveillance; detection and destruction of mines and improvised explosive devices. The intent and purpose of this weapons platform is to provide protection and enhance the strike capability of the man on the forward edge of conflict be it on the conventional battlefield or in counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism situations.
The programme has been in progress since before the turn of the century and the DRDO laboratories have from time to time exhibited the fruits of their labour in wheeled and tracked unmanned ground vehicles and slithering, crawly contraptions that can look round corners or raise their sensors by more than a foot to look over obstacles and warn the fighting man of the dangers lurking beyond.
These facilities were not available when 26/11 happened in Mumbai in 2008 and an NSG commando officer had to lose his life for trying to locate an injured comrade in the dark by raising his voice and giving his position away.
The nation needs to know why these devices were not available in the botched defence of the strategic airbase at Pathankot in early January this year. There too India lost a senior officer who had considerable experience in counter-terror operations when he handled the dead body of a terrorist who had either booby-trapped himself before he died or his surviving companions had done it after he had succumbed to injuries. This happened in spite of the fact that unmanned ground vehicles have been imported.
For a nation that has been at the receiving end of terrorist attacks and nibbling of its territory along its periphery from the very moment of its creation as a sovereign nation-State we should by now have set in place institutional facilities to enhance its conventional and unconventional riposte. The need for effective robots in both attack and defence has been acutely felt over the past two decades especially during the 26/11 in 2008 Mumbai attack and as recently as the Pathankot siege.
One of the several remote controlled robots that the DRDO has created among the first was the Daksh. It is fitted with a dark ambiance camera that can make a 360 degree scan of its surroundings; climb stairs; can scoop up improvised explosive devices (IED) or disrupt the circuitry of remotely-operated IEDs with a high-speed jet of water; it is armed with a 7.62 mm rifle to shoot down doors or attack entrenched terrorists. Over the years it has been redesigned to be able to operate within the confines of aircraft to deal with bomb threats.
Even if it is a work in progress the Daksh needs to be made standard equipment for all security forces both military and paramilitary. To be able to counter urban guerrilla warfare even police units need to have at least one unmanned ground vehicle like the Daksh in every sensitive police station. The National Security Guard tried to divert attention from its failure to deploy this equipment in Mumbai by blaming Press coverage of carnage but Pathankot has exposed the entire gamut of security organizations for the absence of this equipment in their inventory.
If intelligently used the Daksh can be a means of cleaning up nests of entrenched terrorists with minimum collateral damage; opening up possibility of collecting valuable information of their location and neutralizing them without having to burn them to cinders as was done in Pathankot. The treasure trove of information that the one captured terrorist in Mumbai, Ajmal Kasab, proved to be underscores the advantages of taking captives.
An indicator of how chary are the users among security forces to induct such equipment is that a million-plus standing army’s first order was for just 20 Daksh platforms. For a government that talks about “Make in India” there is little evidence either in periphery defence or in internal security situations that such equipment is being deployed in sufficient numbers.
This is an indigenous equipment and given the vast clientele-military, paramilitary (BSF, CRPF, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Assam Rifles and the many commando units raised by State police forces) should make it a lucrative proposition for a select group of micro, small and medium engineering establishments with the requisite technical capabilities to produce and provide after sales service to the users.
Any incremental improvement on onboard equipment/sensors can be incorporated as one goes along. At least the basic equipment/capability would be available to the security forces. They will not look as impotent as they were in Pathankot.
Four DRDO laboratories have been cooperating in creating unmanned platforms. The Research and Development Establishment (Engineers) based in Pune; the Vehicle Research and Development Establishment, Ahmednagar; the Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment near Avadi; and the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Research, Bangalore, have pooled their expertise.
They have borrowed from the natural gait of snakes and caterpillars to create small systems that can slither along the floor, climb stairs and look around corners to give their console handler a clear picture of the terrain ahead without putting security personnel in jeopardy. For the outdoors the teams have employed robotics to create nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) sensors mounted on tracked and wheeled vehicles capable of being deployed and monitored and controlled up to distances of five kilometers. One such vehicle is based on the BMP-2 infantry combat vehicle chassis.
This platform has been used to create a series of unmanned ground vehicles for specialized roles from nuclear, biological, chemical contamination detection and mine clearance and surveillance.
Known as the MUNTRA (acronym for Mission UNmanned TRAcked) these vehicles have undergone intensive testing by the Indian Army in all battlefield conditions, especially in the desert during summer. The MUNTRA-N is of special interest given Pakistan’s creation of a short-range tactical nuclear weapon with which it has been threatening India not to over-react to the terrorist attacks launched from Pakistani soil.
The three specialized UGVs are commanded and controlled by a manned MUNTRA-B vehicle overflowing with electronic gadgetry to drive, monitor the onboard sensors of each of the other three vehicles and apply counter-measures in the requisite sequence. The NBC detector would forewarn Indian mechanized infantry of NBC contamination dangers to avoid in their counter-attack role; the mine clearance vehicle would open up pathways through enemy minefields and the third would maintain battlefield surveillance for real-time intelligence.
The experience gained while creating the MUNTRA series has encouraged the DRDO to talk about the eventual possibility of creating an unmanned main battle tank that will have greater range, lethality and agility compared to the manned versions. A great deal will depend on the creation of robust electro-magnetic and electro-optical interfaces between the forward deployed vehicles and the manned base vehicle. Given that tank and mechanized infantry vehicles operate in very fluid high speed environments the maintenance of command and control and ranges longer than five kilometers would be one of the qualitative staff requirements.
In the realm of unmanned ground vehicles (in fact in all unmanned vehicles whether they are deployed in the air and under the ocean surface) there is already talk of greater autonomy for such vehicles. Preprogramming would help but removing the man completely from military operations is still a distant dream.