Indian Navy Updates

Underwater combat drones: Indian Navy’s readiness


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Deployment of AI powered underwater drones and associated challenges



  • India is on a drive to induct unmanned combat systems into the military. Months after the Indian Army announced the induction of swarm drones into its mechanized forces, the Navy chief, Admiral R Hari Kumar, reiterated the importance of autonomous systems in creating a future-proof Indian Navy (IN).

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Indian Navy’s expanding surveillance and reasons for doing so

  • The IN, indeed, has been on a mission to expand surveillance in India’s near-seas: Two years after it leased MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from the US, the navy, in July 2022, released an unclassified version of its unmanned roadmap for the induction of remote autonomous platforms including undersea vehicles.
  • Maritime deterrence in the Eastern Indian Ocean: A key driver for the enterprise is underwater domain awareness, deemed an increasingly vital component of maritime deterrence in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
  • Chinas undersea presence in the Indian ocean: In the aftermath of the conflict in Ladakh in June 2020, there is a growing sense among Indian experts and military planners that China’s undersea presence in the Indian Ocean is on the cusp of crossing a critical threshold.
  • Recent reports of sighting of Chinese drones in the waters of Indonesia: Recent reports of the sighting of Chinese drones in the waters off Indonesian islands suggest the Peoples Liberation Army Navy has been studying the operating environment of the Indian Ocean.
  • China already deployed vessels around Andaman in the name of research: Already, there has been a rise in the deployment of Chinese research and survey vessels in the waters around India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
  • Recognizing the threat, Indian Navy sought acquire to own AUV: Ever more alive to the dangers posed by foreign undersea presence in Indian waters, the IN sought to acquire its own autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) with twin surveillance and strike capabilities.

Analysis: The navy’s interest in armed underwater drones

  • Underwater vehicles never viewed as warfighting assets: Despite being widely used in underwater search and exploration, underwater vehicles have never quite been viewed as warfighting assets by India’s military establishment.
  • Never sought deploying underwater drones in combat roles: Notwithstanding the AUVs’ utility in tasks such as mine detection and ship survey, India’s naval planners have traditionally desisted from deploying undersea drones in a combat role.
  • Acknowledging war fighting capabilities and need of the hour: Indian analysts and decision-makers seem to be belatedly acknowledging the warfighting abilities of underwater autonomous platforms powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
  • Getting ready for the new era warfare: With the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) shaping a new era in warfare, Indian observers are beginning to recognise the likely impact of disruptive technologies on the maritime domain. AI powered by deep learning, data analytics, and cloud computing, many say, is poised to alter the maritime battlefront, potentially triggering a revolution in naval affairs in India.

Challenges to harness the disruptive technologies in maritime combat

  • Ethical paradox: There is an ethical paradox that typifies artificially intelligent combat systems.
  • Imported AI tech algorithms cannot be under user control: Despite rendering warfare more deadly, AI compromises the control, safety, and accountability of weapon systems it also enhances the risk of shared liability between networked systems, particularly when weapon algorithms are sourced from abroad, and when the satellite and link systems that enable combat solutions are not under the control of the user.
  • Predisposition of data in AI can undermine the decision making: AI is characterised by a predisposition to certain kinds of data. Biases in the collection of data, in the set of instructions for data analysis, and in the selection of probabilistic outcomes muddle rational decision-making, undermining confidence in automated combat solutions.
  • The doctrinal paradox is equally troubling: There is no easy way of incorporating AI-fuelled warfighting approaches into doctrine, particularly when many technologies are in a nascent stage of development, and there is little clarity about how effective AI could be in combat.
  • Capacity limitation that restricts the development of AI: While technology absorption in the navy has matured in certain areas over a period of time, a large gap still exists in the development of critical technologies, which are system engineering, airborne and underwater sensors, weapon systems, and hi-tech components.

The critics of AI in warfare

  • Technology without comprehensive testing is risky: That fielding nascent technologies without comprehensive testing puts both military personnel and civilians at risk.
  • Probabilistic assessment by computers not always provide optimal solution: A system of targeting human beings based on probabilistic assessments by computers that act merely on machine-learned experiences, is problematic because the computer neither has access to all relevant data to make an informed decision nor recognizes that it needs more information to come up with an optimal solution.
  • Shaping policy to account for AI is challenging: That is because military doctrine is premised on a traditional understanding of conflict. If war is a normative construct, then there are rules and codes to be followed, and ethical standards to be met.
  • AI could be inconsistent with the laws of war: What is more, AI seemingly automates weapon systems in ways that are inconsistent with the laws of war.


Legality issues of underwater combat drones

  • Status by UNCLOS is not yet clear: It is not yet clear if unmanned maritime systems enjoy the status of ships under the UN convention of the laws of the sea; even if they do, it is unlikely that they can be classified as warships.

Way ahead

  • Notwithstanding the announcement of multiple AI projects, the navy remains focused on using AI in noncombat activities such as training, logistics, inventory management, maritime domain awareness, and predictive maintenance.
  • India’s maritime managers recognize that the IN is still at a place on its evolutionary curve where incorporating AI in combat systems could prove risky. An incremental approach, many believe, is the best way forward.


  • It is worth acknowledging that AI in warfare is not just a matter of combat effectiveness but also of warfighting ethics. AI-infused unmanned systems on the maritime battlefront pose a degree of danger, making it incumbent upon the military to deploy its assets in ways that are consistent with national and international law. India’s naval leadership would do well if it takes careful and calculated steps in developing AI-powered underwater systems.

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