Time to deploy robots in combat

It must have been a nightmare for the security forces when the Indian Air Force base at Pathankot came under attack by armed infiltrators.

A strict operating procedure must have been followed, but the scenario would have changed every second. Only those in the thick of the action would know what the ground realities are. Casualties are the only grim certainties.

It was heartwrenching to see men in uniform, who were not in the direct line of gunfire, lose their lives. Soldiers like Lt Col Niranjan who died when a grenade, possibly booby trap-ped, went off. If it is deeply saddening to see men go down to bullets in a combat situation, it is even sadder to see deaths that could have been avoided even by the slenderest of margins. And that slender margin could be the use of technology.

Robots are being widely used across the world to defuse bom-bs, while drones go on reconn-aissance assignments (with vid-eo and thermal-imaging cameras attached to them, sending back live pictures to a command post). They even carry small gauge arms that can open fire at a target via a remote cont-roller. In November 2015, China unveiled three robots that can carry out surveillance, armed attack and defence procedures including small bombs disposal.

In what could have a been Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in any encounter situation between infiltrators/ terrorists and the armed forces, robots could have been immediately deployed to reconnaissance the area for possible bombs or grenades once combing operations began.

The R&DE (E) wing of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) had developed and handed over a batch of robotic units called ‘Daksh’ to the Army way back in 2011. The wheels of ‘Daksh’ are equipped to climb staircases and negotiate steep slopes, and dispose of bombs by using its water jet disruptor. It has a range of capabilities, including using a camera and an X-ray scanner to view and recover suspicious objects. It can be controlled remotely from a distance of 500 metres with a clear line of sight.

Four years down the line, one can be sure that ‘Daksh’ has become much more sophisticated, with the basic tactical strength remaining the same – deploying it into potentially dangerous (and explosive) situations.

The moot question here: Could a similar robotic device have been used by the NSG during its combing operations? It is very difficult to digest that in 2016 the Indian defence forces used humans to approach the bodies of the slain intruders, when robots could have been sent forth. Especially with field experience that slain infiltrators are most often left behind with booby-trapped grenades that go off when their body is moved or shifted.
Robots need to be readily available for use in forward air bases and strategic forward posts right across the border areas, irrespective of which arm of the Indian armed forces is tasked with keeping vigil.

Electronic warfare devices
There is no doubt that there is a need for a large number of highly trained bomb-disposal specialists in today’s touchy security scenario in India. But they should now go hand in hand with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), satellite and thermal imagery, and other electronic warfare (EW) devices.

Everybody holds their breath each time a bomb disposal expert steps in to directly defuse a bomb. A huge sigh of relief goes up when the bomb is defused successfully. But Lt Col Niranjan and the others with him were not so lucky. ‘It need not be this way’ is what we were all probably saying when we saw the grieving families of those killed in Pathankot in the explosion.

And this in an era where civilian ‘gated’ communities, residential apartment complexes and corporate buildings bristle with closed circuit cameras (CCTVs), an era when new drones and robotic devices are being unveiled at regular intervals, and are easily available for purchase by civilians.

Armed infiltrators play on the knowledge that gaps can be created across our border. But once they are in, they would prefer to carry a limited amount of hi-tech gear for their navigational purposes, like GPS units, reserving the bulk of their luggage for weapons and material for destroying structures and humans.

The huge advantage of the armed forces over such infiltrators would be the extensive use of unmanned drones and robots for surveillance, combined with sophisticated thermal and satellite imagery. This kind of surveillance could stop them from approaching so close to a forward airbase like the one at Pathankot.

There is no doubt that the strategic commanders of our defence forces are using this advantage wherever possible. They are right in keeping details of the use of such unmanned vehicles out of the public domain as far as possible, for obvious reasons.
But whenever there are murmurs over avoidable military deaths after an incident, such as the one at Pathankot (combined with comments about ‘bad luck’), one would keep wishing for more open and extensive use of robots and UAVs – double-edged weapons that could save lives as well as deter infiltration.

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