Interim Budget 2024-25: Towards a Deep Tech Enabled Defence Architecture

The contours of a twin-pronged approach were discernible in the Interim Budget presented by Nirmala Sitharaman.

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It is axiomatic that to acquire space to grow, India must constantly work to augment its hard power, which for intermediate global powers, is increasingly located at the intersection of economic and security interests.

In the context of intensifying global geopolitical flux and a fragmented world economic order, it is, therefore, incumbent upon India to clearly establish its priorities for the defence of the realm as opposed to merely asserting its needs which may be endless. That’s the way to ensure some bang for the buck, as it were.

In the Interim Budget (vote-on-account) presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday, the contours of a twin-pronged approach by the government are discernible.

It marries the requirement for an advanced technology-premised enhancement of military capabilities with the need for self-reliance in the defence sector to avoid concentrated risk (in terms of nations from which India sources defence equipment and technologies) given the ongoing geostrategic churn.

In her speech, FM Sitharaman said: “A new scheme will be launched for strengthening deep-tech for defence purposes and expediting atmanirbharta.” As a part-corollary, she also announced a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore for tech research and development and innovation for the private sector which is also expected to feed into India’s defence requirements. 


A Wide Range of Emerging Technologies Have Military Applications

While the allocation in Budget 2024-25 to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is up from last year as well as the highest among all ministries at Rs 6.2 lakh crore for FY 2024-2025 ($ 75 billion), the capital outlay component – for procuring fighter aircraft, weapons systems – comprises Rs 1 lakh 57 thousand crore, down marginally from last year’s Rs 1 lakh 62 thousand crores. The fiscal impact of implementing One Rank One Pension (OROP) on the armed forces will clearly linger for a while yet. But the defence capital outlay versus wage bill argument is a longstanding one and will continue into the future.

The major signal in the defence budget is clearly the emphasis on, and provisions to be made for, integrating deep technology into the defence and security domains.

The most prominent obstacle in the external environment to India’s rise is an assertive China, which is in the process of establishing a monopoly in key advanced technologies and is the world leader in fields such as electric batteries, hyper-sonics, and advanced radio-frequency communications like 5G and 6G. According to a March 2023 report in The Guardian, China leads the US in 37 out of 44 technologies tracked over 2022-23 by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

A wide range of emerging technologies have military applications – including cyber technology, AI, and quantum technology – and the extent of their incorporation into the Indian armed forces will prove critical over the coming years. 

As Michael O’Hanlon writes in his well-regarded monograph Security, Strategy, and Order: Forecasting Change In Military Technology: 2020-2040, technology is advancing rapidly in many realms but it is not enough to wave one’s arms exuberantly about futuristic military possibilities. Defence resource decisions need to be based on concrete analysis that breaks down the categories of major military technological inventions and innovations one by one and examines each. Presumably, those areas where things are changing fastest may warrant the most investment, as well as the most creative thinking about how to modify tactics and operational plans to exploit new opportunities (and mitigate new vulnerabilities that adversaries may develop as a result of these same likely advances). 


Information Warfare Has Become Deeply Sophisticated

Private sector participation in developing applied technologies for the armed forces and the fillip it would provide to India’s tech capacity is critical. But as advanced technologies make their way into the defence sector, among the challenges India faces is slow networks which is detrimental to maintaining the highest demands of the Internet of Things and interconnected service networks. These are vital for a range of activities including intelligence gathering and real-time dissemination at the bottom of the pyramid.

Information warfare, meanwhile, has become deeply sophisticated. And a cyberattack is not an indivisible threat — it can, according to an expert, “take many shapes and hues, and have disparate entry points, veiled actors, and have debilitating effects when launched by an adversary”. State and non-state actors are increasingly using cyberspace as a platform to execute hybrid warfare. As multiple incidents in India have shown, critical infrastructure (CI), particularly nuclear infrastructure, has been a consistent target of cyberattacks.

Generative AI, which can produce realistic content such as text, imagery, audio, and synthetic data, has in the short period of time it has been around forced a rethink of defence strategy and military tactics. 

There is broad consensus that space systems are the most vulnerable to ambushes from various attack vectors, including orbital, kinetic and electronic warfare. But they are equally vulnerable to digital threats. Cyberattacks can occur across multiple theatres – affecting space assets, communications links, and ground operations – within a space system architecture.

To a great extent, cyber and space issues are interconnected. In fact, satellites are more prone to risk than is often perceived, as a recent paper by the Observer Research Foundation underlined – satellites have become more digitized and digitally piloted, thereby expanding the surface area of incursion. The adversary can use a variety of modus operandi to disrupt, disable, destroy or maliciously control satellites or their ground-based systems.


Additionally, cyberattacks can target an entire constellation of satellites. Space systems are based entirely on information systems and networks. Their core systems, such as telemetry links to ground stations, channels for data transmission, and onboard controls, are highly vulnerable to malicious acts designed to deny, degrade, or disrupt their operations. For example, the deflection of a hacked satellite from its orbit would be potentially disastrous.

Hostile cyber activities could take various forms, say the experts: Spoofing sensor data; tampering with sensor systems to make them generate false responses; jamming command links; and sending malware into the software controlling spy or communications satellites in orbit. For satellites, loss of mission data (a severe event in the case of military surveillance satellites in times of war), decreased lifespan in orbit, or loss of positive control of space platforms could be among the outcomes of such attacks.

The Interim Budget flagging deep tech for defence ought to have focussed the mind of the defence establishment on this emergent threat. Once the allocated monies are put to use, India will be both more secure and better able to pursue its developmental priorities. 

(Ishan Joshi is a Senior Fellow at the Pahle India Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Interim Budget 

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