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India Wants Its Military To Master AI By The 2020s

September 18, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

To reach the forefront of military technology India is bringing together its government and private sector for an ambitious program: the widespread adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Speaking at the Society of Indian Defense Manufacturer’s (SIDM) 2nd Annual Session, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh revealed his office approved multiple projects related to “AI in Defense.” Although the minister didn’t name specifics, what could pass for India’s national AI strategy has been in the works for the past few years.

The SIDM is a non-profit organization for helping all of India’s largest companies with collaborative projects that enhance the armed forces’ technological reach.

Singh’s remarks on AI were part of his speech at the SIDM where he promoted Make in India: Marching Towards a $26 billion Defense Industry by 2025. The original Make in India launched during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term may have succeeded in rebranding the country as a magnet for high tech manufacturing, but results in the crucial military-industrial sector were dismal. India’s state-owned Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) has never managed to export its own products in bulk anywhere and even its impressive track record is still regarded with disdain by a military with a reflexive preference for importing expensive kit from abroad.


Via Twitter.

But this new push for Make in India is as aggressive as ever. Singh informed the SIDM that India is on track to have a $10 trillion GDP between 2030 and 2032. Part of this remarkable surge is the deliberate expansion is the “huge defense industrial base” lauded by Singh, with its 41 OFB manufacturing plants and 50 R&D labs. According to Singh, to achieve Make in India’s lofty goals for the “base” the government plans on investing $10 billion and creating two to three million jobs in the next six years.

Singh did single out the role of “MSMEs” or private companies who participate in OFB projects–their numbers should double from 8,000 to 16,000 within the same period. What the minister described resembles China’s ongoing push for its private sector to begin supplying the PLA rather than serve foreign markets. India’s version, however, is a little more specific while the inner workings of China’s opaque military industries are harder to discern.

Of course, Singh’s numbers may seem impressive and whether or not these are achievable invites skepticism. In fact, Singh boasts of “defense exports” from 2018 until today being worth Rs 10,745 crore or Rs 10,745,000,000 without specifying if these are OFB revenues or private sector revenues. But computing the stated amount to dollars at the current exchange is quite sobering; India’s “defense exports” this year are only worth $150,279,720…a meager sum. Yet Singh declares by 2024 the figure reaches as high as $5 billion and, perhaps, the”defense sector” enjoys a “turnover” worth $26 billion by 2025.

In the same vein, Singh expects the completion of 25 unnamed projects related to AI on the same year “defense exports” reach $5 billion. Trying to assess India’s goals with military AI may seem difficult at first but the government has never bothered keeping such projects from the public. A strategy was finalized without much fanfare in late 2018 under Singh’s predecessor, Nirmala Sitharaman, and even the SIDM has a grocery list of needed technologies. Where does AI fit, anyway? At this stage, India’s military want AI to cut red tape and help them enhance data collection. A few examples:

  • AI for improved satellite imagery
  • AI for surveillance and facial recognition
  • AI married to quantum key distribution
  • Block chains for internal human resource data

Whether or not the defense ministry wants broader uses for AI outside these four benchmarks hasn’t been revealed.

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