Kerala Technology
Military looks to startups as warfare technologies shift

 Cyber defence is now vital to protect critical infrastructure. (Image: Pixaby)

Military looks to startups as warfare technologies shift

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on March 27, 2023
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on March 27, 2023

No war has illustrated the power - and vulnerability - of the internet more than the ongoing clash between Russia and Ukraine. As the war continues into its second year, the roles played by mobile phones and satellites are proving to be key to the conflict.

Defence forces worldwide are closely monitoring the Russia-Ukraine war to learn from the evolving nature of warfare, and the Indian army is no exception.

During a recent interaction with startups focused on cyber defence, Brigadier Lalit Sharma, who heads the Pangode military station in Trivandrum, pointed out that the nature of warfare has dramatically changed in terms of duration and dimension. Warfare has become multidimensional, and attacks on networks that control critical infrastructure, such as power and transportation, as well as the dissemination of favourable information, have become essential components of modern warfare.

“The traditional belief that it is the armed forces who will solely fight in wars may no longer hold true. We, the citizens of the country, will fight the war together,” said the decorated soldier who has received both the Shaurya Chakra and Sena Medal (Gallantry).

According to Brigadier Sharma, everything from essential services to banks can become a target for adversaries, and disseminating correct information to counter propaganda during a conflict is critical.

The ongoing conflict in Europe is illustrating the vulnerabilities of assets not only on earth but also in space. Recently, US-based Viasat reported that pro-Moscow groups allegedly hacked into their satellite communications, highlighting the need to extend cyber defence even into space.

Kyiv, which has been relying on borrowing weapons and funds, has leveraged its IT talent to compensate for its lack of physical power.

This is where India's tech pool of 5 million becomes crucial, and the Indian armed forces are urging the dynamic sector to present their ideas through the Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) scheme launched in 2018. The programme aims to support startups, existing industries, and individual innovators in assisting the defence forces, and at least 127 firms have responded to calls under the scheme so far.

Kerala has strong ties to the program as it was launched when the former Kerala IT Secretary, Dr. Ajaya Kumar, was the Defence Secretary, and the current CEO of Technopark, Sanjeev Nair, was the programme director of iDEX until he took up his current role.

However, Nair says that only a few Kerala firms have attempted to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the programme.

Through the iDEX initiative, startups can address problem statements provided by the defence forces, or they can propose a problem and solution under the open challenge section. Winners of these challenges will also have access to the top research facilities of the defence forces. Additionally, all successful products are guaranteed a market as iDEX is included in the defence ministry's arms procurement plan, according to Nair.

While deep tech remains a significant focus of the defence forces, the conflict in Ukraine is demonstrating how even basic mobile phones can become critical factors in a conflict zone. Reports indicate that Ukrainian forces launched a deadly missile attack after detecting the enemy's position when some Russian soldiers used their mobile phones to make calls.

In Kyiv, a private technology firm has created a searchable database of hacked Russian troop communications, and another firm has developed an app described by Financial Times defence correspondent Shashank Joshi as an “Uber for artillery commanders”. Informants and civilians upload photos of enemy targets via mobile phones, and military commanders then assign units best suited to attack the enemy positions.

While even basic technology like phones is becoming a crucial link in warfare, the rapid pace at which artificial intelligence is being developed and adopted across various fields adds an unknown dimension to this mix. Autonomous drones have already been used on battlefields, even before the emergence of regenerative AI programs such as GPT-3 and other large language models that are disrupting some sectors, such as code writing.

The use of AI to synthesise voice and make fake phone calls has already alarmed security officials and the Indian army has already focused on ways to combat this with a centralised solution. 

“We have also sensitised our people to be extremely wary of such attempts which are being made on their personal calls. A major drive is going on to educate our troops, our family, our children, who are also privy to some of the information with regard to location and other things,” said Brigadier Sharma.

It’s clear that as time goes on modern armed forces will face technological challenges that will range from protecting outer space assets to the safeguarding personal information of troops and their families.

Just a few days ago a report said authorities in Cyberabad have come across a gang which was allegedly selling the personal information of 160 million people, including over 255,000 defence personnel.

As technology advances, the boundary between the military and civilians becomes increasingly blurred. The emergence of powerful AI programs has heightened the risk of ransomware and phishing attacks, making it crucial for tech startups to play a vital role in safeguarding society against malicious actors in the cyber world. The Indian defence forces offer an excellent opportunity for innovative minds to contribute to this cause and help defend against cyber threats.



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Coming soon, to a screen near you ….

Have you seen the photos of former US President Donald Trump getting arrested? Or French President Emmanuel Macron escaping through the riot-hit Paris streets? Both of these events didn't happen, but AI-generated pictures of these incidents have appeared on social media and have already been viewed by millions. To make things worse, Trump himself shared a picture of himself praying, and Forbes says it is also a fake and AI-generated one. Now, if Trump had shared the picture of his “arrest”, who is going to convince his hardcore followers that it is a fake image? Good luck with that one.