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BW Businessworld

The Next War Will Be Fought With Machines: Dr Ojha

“Cybersecurity is not just about credit card hacks. On a macro level, cybersecurity is about attacks to dislocate the satellite, turning a missile, about hacking jets and attacks on critical infrastructure like the power sector which can jolt the economy at large”, explains Dr Nishakant Ojha.

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Dr Nishakant Ojha, an advisor in matters of Cyber, Aerospace and Counter Terrorism, is currently the Chief Strategic Officer with Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL). He is an eminent expert on counter-terrorism for the West Asia & Middle East. And notably, he has worked with the Defence and Para Military of the Government of India. Talking to BW Businessworld, he expounds the realities of the cyber security infrastructure in the country, the Aatmanirbhar mission in terms of Defence Manufacturing and how India needs to prepare for the next digital threat.

Edited Excerpts: 

Q: Firstly, to set a context, let’s begin with the state of cybersecurity. We've heard so much in the news about shadowpad and our power grids being affected. Addressing the chatter about that, what would you say is the state of our cyber security infrastructure in the country?
A: The current position of India in the sphere of the cybersecurity is not robust enough to handle the attacks which are being done on us. We are doing a lot of things continuously and we are working towards a robust ecosystem, but post pandemic, nearly 1.16 million cases of cyberattacks was reported in 2020. This is 3 times more than 2019 and more than 20 times higher compared to 2016. When we talk post pandemic, we have all shifted to the digital mode, and Digital India is very vulnerable to these new age cyberattacks. Today, technology is constantly changing, we are talking about artificial intelligence, military machine learning, IoT and also about the quantum.

Now that we’ve talked about the scenario, let’s talk about the ecosystem. Every day we get around 50,000 cyberattacks in India and most attacks are basically from North Korea, China and our West-Asian countries and inside also from people parked inside our own soil. So we need to move into a rapid action, make ourselves strong so that we can sustain the changing dynamics in cybersecurity.

Q: How prepared are we to handle this?
A: I’m seeing a 37 per cent rise every quarter from 2020 till now in the cyberattacks.  And coming to our last mile dependency, we are still dependant on other countries to safeguard our interests. We have outdated systems and as we move towards new technologies and AI, ML, IoT and Quantum, things will take a different shape. The spread of digital adoption across public and private sector has left little time for the proper development of backend cybersecurity infrastructure. Thus, I have been talking to the government about setting up a cyber war room for Defence and it is very timely and important.

Also at the core is the public perception and the limited understanding about the cybersecurity. Cybersecurity is not just about credit card hacks. On a macro level, cybersecurity is about attacks to dislocate the satellite, turning a missile, about hacking jets and attacks on critical infrastructure like the power sector which can jolt the economy at large

Q: Building on public awareness and the public perception, give us a sense of what we are up against.
A: When we come to India, we are often on a defensive mode and not offensive. We need to have security operation centres that are capable of handling the social engineering, phishing attacks and attacks using emerging technology. Often we are not able to detect or read the characteristics of the malware and viruses which are entering. So there is data breach, malware, ransomware and cloud vulnerabilities which we must guard against. And there is no quick fix, it's an ongoing process. There is no solution where you just get a software installed in your system or in your network and you will become cyber safe. Take a country like North Korea who extensively indulge in hacking, it contributes heavily to their economy and this is alarming. While we can create a security network and operate on sophisticated equipments, unless we are not aware of the level of risk no device or software can help us.

Q: Now allow me to steer this conversation to another aspect of security and surveillance technology- Drones. You are working with the counter-drone technology in the country. Could you give us a context to tell us when these counter drones will be in function and how it will help us in our counter-terrorism and cybersecurity response?
A: Firstly, we need to approach this differently. When Cyberspace evolved, it became a buzzword. And now, because of one attack a couple of months back, everybody's talking about counter drones, UAV and the like. But we are not clear on what we have to do. We have to decide based on what we need. When we talk about the contemporary and the emerging security challenges, the Chinese military's institutions in the Himalayas and the Pakistan proxy war is our reality. So we need initiatives to counter this.

I have given the presentation to many agencies and I believe the future war will not be of humans but of machines. All countries are developing their own IPs and operating on different frequencies and from various command centres. In India too, we are promoting talent under Aatmanirbhar Bharat. We are promoting start-ups in the defence sector and trying to localize the production of these tools. But we are still in the early stages, we cannot do everything under Aatmanirbhar. It's not like we can start manufacturing everything in a short span. We have to work on the concept of transfer of technology. We need to become a good systems integrator, so that we can borrow technology and then we can indigenise it. We are already collaborating with foreign universities who have a domain expertise in creating the UAV that can carry the payloads of something around 500 kg and they can fly up to go around 50,000 kilometres and they also have the ability to stay in orbit for four to five days if something goes wrong.

Talking about my work, we are working with the couple of foreign universities and foreign scientists. In due course of time, around 6-7 months, we will be able to demonstrate. I am keen to fulfil the objective of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of Aatmanirbhar Bharat. Our drones will be on par with the Israelis, on whom we are currently totally dependent. Frankly speaking 90% of drones are customised from commercial shelves. There are no tailor-made solutions, yet. The key is to identify the need and how we will use them.

Q: My question is along the lines of domestic drone technology. And what are we doing on the home front? The draft drone bill which is supposed to be effective from the 5th of August gives a very fertile climate for drone development in the country. How do you see commercial drones shaping up?
A: Commercially, we are working on drones already which will be good for the supply chain and for the farmers. But when you're talking about the defence level drones, we need a certain kind which can fly and hit targets. Drones today are amalgamated with the GPS and they're working through the satellite. Even if we are they have able to block the frequency, they have got the backend connectivity to the satellites and GPS. We need to work on drones and counter-drones parallelly. We have to become a system integrator, but we have to involve ourselves in all kinds of activities, so that reverse intelligence can take place and in due course of time, we can start manufacturing within India. That's a real meaning of Aatmanirbhar.

Q: So how do we take this momentum forward and what is the future of drone technology?
A: The challenges that I have found as a scientist is that we have to work more on the frame of the drones. The higher drones can fly, and more payload they can carry with them the more effective they will be. 

When we come to solutions, ‘graphene’ will reduce the weight of the frame by at least 500 times. With a lighter weight, it will be able to carry a lot of payload. Now with the intervention of the Honourable Prime Minister, there is more clarity on this front in terms of the work to be done. What we need now is to think more on UAVs and the counter drones which basically protects our territory and border from their enemies and secures our orbit. 

Government has taken many initiatives to promote start-ups in the areas of UAVs and Counter drones. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has created 8 advanced technology centres across the country to carry out research activity. The Atal Innovation mission is also noteworthy. In fact, the procurement of defence related goods and services by the government from small and micro enterprises has risen by 2.2 percent and in INR terms, 9.29 crores in the financial year 2021. This is good for the development climate. However, it doesn’t mean we should become complacent, our neighbours have high defence budgets. The key is to remain clear of what we need and how we can proceed from here.

Finally I want to add, as of my mission for the defence, I just want to put the figure that in the year 2021 and 2022 in Indian army, we have 6 theatres, and there will be a need for 3000 drones and counter drones. 11,000 crores is the predicted figure. 14,000 crores for agriculture, 11,000 for Defence and Homeland Security and 4,000 crore for rural and urban development. There is immense potential in this field and India is now in a position to decide how we will move forward.

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