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Emerging and Disruptive Technologies in Defence

Imagine a weapon that can take down a country's entire communication satellite system, completely cutting them off the global grid, or picture hackers manipulating an enemy's radar defences from miles away, paving the way for a smooth, unobstructed air strike. Unfortunately, it's not just a fragment of imagination anymore; it has become an increasingly alarming reality: Emerging and Disruptive Technologies.

An Illustration on Emerging and Disruptive Technologies in Defence

Illustration by The Geostrata

The term ‘Disruptive Technology' was coined in 1997 by Harvard Business School's professor Clayton M. Christensen in his book “The Innovator's Dilemma” to refer to completely new or enhanced technologies that bring about a radical, not incremental, shift, have the potential to change how the world operates, and disrupt the pre-existing notions of affairs. 

Starting in 1995 as an online bookseller, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon disrupted the way people shopped, and Charles Hull is rapidly changing the traditional manufacturing industry by inventing 3D printing.


The defence and security sector is not spared by these technological advancements and is presented with its share of opportunities and concerns.

EDTs are increasingly assisting militaries in chartering unexplored waters, maximising effectiveness, cost efficiency, sustainability, and resilience. However, they also present a huge threat to society, both civil and military, from their misuse.


Technological superiority has perhaps for long been the largest contributor to overall military strength. Its correct application has historically overturned battles, tilting the table towards the relatively weaker side. 

For instance, during the Hundred Years’ War, in the Battle of Agincourt (1415), the British forces, although outnumbered 5:1 by the mighty and heavily armed French army, secured victory due to the greater range and superior penetrability of their longbows.

The Battle of Britain (1940–41) during World War II is another example where the Royal Air Force won against the larger Luftwaffe by effectively utilising radar technology and interception tactics(*). Post-1945, a significant reason behind the military superiority of the US, UK, and USSR was their nuclear capabilities.


Realising the potential of EDTs in revolutionising military capabilities, governments all around the world have started to invest heavily in the research and development of such technologies by collaborating with private institutions and innovators to explore the possibilities and applications of dual-use technologies.


At the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels, NATO launched its 2030 Agenda, which identified nine areas of innovation that might prove particularly disruptive to the defence sector, which included artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, quantum technologies, biotechnology and human enhancements, hypersonic systems, space, novel materials and manufacturing, energy and propulsion, and next-generation communications networks.


By enhancing the capabilities of militaries in areas of autonomous systems, decision-making, data analysis, surveillance, mitigating risks, and reducing the scope for human error, AI is rapidly transforming the defence sector.

Russian President Putin stated long ago, in 2017, that the country that becomes the leader in AI “will be the ruler of the world.”. 

Autonomous systems, once well developed, can reduce the number of human casualties and labour costs significantly, as Aristotle rightly said. This can ensure the optimization of human capital in sectors of greater necessity. AI and deep fake technology have also been actively utilised by armies to launch cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to create domestic chaos and win wars off the battlefield.


Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS), aka “Killer Robots,” which will employ sensor data to select and engage targets without human instructions, are currently being developed. Unmanned vehicles have already started impacting warfighting in the past decade. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Unmanned Surface Vehicles, Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, and Unmanned Ground Vehicles have revolutionised surveillance and reconnaissance.

As per a UNSC’s panel of experts report, in 2020, a Kargu 2 drone hunted down and attacked a human target in Libya. This was also the first instance when an autonomous device armed with high-tech weapons attacked a person (*). It won't be a surprise if, a few years from now, physical battlefields are completely swarmed with automated and autonomous weapons.

The concept of “Drone Swarms,” where multiple drones coordinate and communicate to carry out various military missions, was also displayed when Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked Saudi Arabian oil facilities in 2019 or when the Israeli forces used it in 2021 to target Hamas militants in Gaza.


One sector that is perhaps quite common to all the strategic studies and agendas globally is harnessing the potential of Quantum Technologies and applying it to defence affairs. It can provide unconventional speed in analysing problems, precise positioning, navigation, and timing.

Quantum cryptography can encode data in a way that is almost impossible to intercept, quantum communication can create secure lines of communication that will be unhackable, and quantum sensors can detect very weak signals and miniscule changes in magnetic and electric fields, making them very useful for monitoring radio conversations and detecting submarines and mines.

The United States Congress established the National Quantum Initiative in 2018. India also launched its 8-year-long National Quantum Mission in April 2023 and became the seventh country in the world to have a dedicated quantum mission. China launched “Origin Wukong"   , its first home-grown third-generation superconducting quantum computer, in January 2024 and is vying with the US for quantum supremacy.


It is without doubt that the future of warfare tactics will be highly reliant on AI, autonomous vehicles, and other technological advancements. Data will perhaps be the most vital component of all these tactics and the kingmaker.  Proportional to the speed with which technological innovations are happening, the vastness of data is also growing. This growth demands systems that can swiftly collect inputs from sources like drones, wearable devices, sensors, and satellites, process and analyse the collected data, and share relevant data outputs through integrated networks.

It will greatly reduce the time taken to make decisions by providing better situational awareness, enabling real-time monitoring of resources, and optimising logistics.

In 2023, the US-Canadian joint command, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), introduced the Cloud-Based Command and Control (CBC2) system to modernise its air defence system, starting with the Eastern Air Defense Sector. CBC2, through the extensive use of artificial intelligence, will simplify data monitoring for air defence.


On July 31st, 2023, Lockheed Martin announced the development of its 500 kW class laser weapon, the world’s strongest Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) currently. DEWs operate by using highly concentrated and coherent beams of light to neutralise their targets.

Their main advantage is their speed of light, which enables near-instantaneous enemy engagement over long ranges. These weapons are also known for their precision and accuracy, reducing the risk of collateral damage.

They can be a huge help to military operations in densely populated regions. India’s Defense Research and Development Organisation also tested its 1 kW laser weapon at its facility in Chitradurga in 2017, which hit a target 250m away. It is also in the process of developing a 100 kW DEW called Directionally Unrestricted Ray Gun-Array (DURGA) II.



While DEWs usually utilise the speed of light, lasers, and radiation, another emerging facet of defence technology that has intrigued nations is hypersonic weapons, which travel at least five times (Mach 5) the speed of sound or faster. They can fly at very high altitudes in both cruise and glide, are highly manoeuvrable, and can change course during flight. Their speed helps them evade the best of radar systems and strike targets without detection.

Russia’s hypersonic glide vehicle Avangard, which was described by Russian President Putin as one of six “next-generation” weapons, is the world’s fastest hypersonic weapon, travelling at the speed of Mach 27 (27 times the speed of sound).

China’s DF-17 and DF-41, along with Russian Kinzhal, Zircon, and Sarmat weapons are at present the frontrunners of the hypersonic race. India has also been working on its hypersonic weapon, the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), since 2019.

Research has been ongoing to develop self-healing armour, heat-resistant protective clothing, and stronger and lighter advanced materials. Extensive funding to build a space architecture for cross-domain operations, communication, navigation, and reconnaissance is also prioritised.

At present, the Indian space industry is valued at USD 8.4 billion and is expected to amount to USD 44 billion by 2033. Augmented, genetically engineered soldiers on the battlefield can also be a possibility. A report by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) highlighted the possibility of super soldiers with exoskeletons, implants, and genetic modifications in the future.

However, not all is without caution. In 2021, a report by the NATO Science and Technology Committee noted the possible ill effects of combinations of EDTs with other dual-use technologies like biotech. Together with EDTs like AI, quantum technologies, nanotechnologies, additive manufacturing, and robotics, biotech can be used to automate the development, production, and development of biological weapons, which have the potential to cause great havoc if in the wrong hands. It also raises questions about governance mechanisms.

The ethics involved with these technologies have also been a topic of intense discussion in the international community.


Like-minded countries have devised significant partnerships to boost their defence and technological advancements. India and the US announced the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET) in 2022 to foster deeper cooperation in critical and emerging fields, including AI, quantum computing, semiconductors, and wireless communication.

Launched officially in January 2023 with a total of six areas of cooperation, it is run by the National Security Council of India and the US. The countries also launched the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X) for defence industrial cooperation.

The 2022 United States budget reserved USD 34 billion for defence technology innovation, which amounts to roughly 4% of the national security budget.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has also launched DIANA, the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, which will be fully operational by 2025. It also launched the 1 billion Euro NATO Innovation Fund, the world’s first multi-sovereign venture capital fund, to provide investments to start-ups developing dual-use or disruptive technologies. The European Union has also introduced various schemes and funds to catalyse defence innovation, such as the EU Defence Innovation Scheme and the EU Defence Innovation Hub (HEDI), in addition to its cooperation with NATO. 



Recent years have seen a shift in India’s defence spending. Substantial efforts are being made to promote indigenous production of military technologies. The defence innovation budget for DRDO is approximately 24000 crore INR in FY 2024–25. INR 60 crore has also been allotted to the Technology Development Fund (TDF), aimed at supporting new start-ups, MSMEs, and academia interested in innovation and developing niche defence technology in collaboration with the DRDO.

An ecosystem of public-private partnerships is gradually developing in the country. For India to make the best use of this opportunity and catch up with its enemies, a sustained environment of domestic innovation and production is paramount.

Developing and implementing these technologies won’t be an easy task with critical issues such as supply chain management, quality control, ethical dilemmas, and cyberattacks, among others. Navigating these challenges will require careful attention and balance.




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