Making a Case for India’s Exigent Need for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

On a star studded night, two Heron drones of the Indian Air Force (IAF) loitered in the skies across the International Border shared with Pakistan and powerful cameras mounted on them clicked countless pictures. Shortly after, the pictures were streamed live to South Block – the military power seat of India. As the pictures were resolved, top brass of the country’s military establishment gathered to plan one of the most daring operations India has ever carried out.

The pictures in question were of ‘terror launch pads’, which were situated across the border in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) region. The launch pads were being extensively used to infiltrate terrorists into India. Only days before, these proxy enemies had pulled-off a major strike against India’s army installation in Uri and Jammu, killing around 18 brave soldiers.

Indian Army was now planning a retaliatory strike that would inflict massive toll on terror organizations and their sympathisers. Here, Heron drones were on an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) mission. They were setting stage for the surgical strike by the country’s elite Para commandos. The information collected by these drones had helped the commandos to pull off an impeccable strike on these launch pads, leaving several terror organizations grappling for breath.

As the surgical strikes progressed at multiple locations along the LOC, the Government was haunted by the concerns of Pakistan sensing the attack and launching retaliatory strike against Indian forces. This throughout the operation threatened the life of Indian commandos, who had crossed the border putting their life at risk.

IAI developed Heron drone.

These concerns would have been answered, if India had opted for ‘covert strike’ over the risky ‘surgical strike’. However, India lagged credible systems to mount such an operation. An efficient and preferred choice for conducting covert strikes in this era is through Drones. Armed with missiles and munitions flying several thousand feet above, they can inflict punitive strike against designated targets. Since induction, they have revolutionised warfare.

Providing unmatched intelligence and live operational picture, be it in the scorching deserts of Syria and Iraq or freezing heights in Afghanistan, these drones have served as eyes and ears on battlefield for military forces worldwide.

For Indian forces, the need for these unmanned systems is acute. India is situated in a prime geographical location and is enclosed by two hostile neighbours. Skirmish along the borders have inflicted considerable toll on the forces. Drones are critical to monitor India’s internal and external struggle against hostile forces.

Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) are in service with over 50 countries. They are being extensively used for ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operations. A very few countries have mastered the art of using these aerial vehicles for conducting precision strikes. These vehicles are known as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). The role of a drone is always determined by the payload it can carry and support.

The first documented usage of UCAV dates back to August 1964, when US Forces used a drone to target rebels in Vietnam. India’s tryst with unmanned platforms began in 1990’s when Indian Air Force (IAF) received drones from Israel. Currently, IAF and Indian Navy are the prime users of UAS in India.

Under its operational command, India has Searcher Mark I & II, Harop and Heron drones, which are being employed for ISR operations along the borders of the country. Indian Army has positioned several drones, which have enabled the infantry to obtain live picture of operational area.

As the situation along India’s International Borders continues to deteriorate, there is an increasing call for the induction of these systems at the earliest. Even though India has tried relentlessly to indigenously develop these systems, results have not been forthcoming. The Nishant UAV, which DRDO had developed for the Army has met with limited success. The ‘Rustom Project’, under which DRDO envisions to supply forces with their maiden armed drones, is lingering in developmental stages. These systems are yet to fire a missile from their racks.

For a maturing aerospace power like India, the challenges to design and develop critical technologies required for UAV systems all by itself is extremely demanding. Development of avionics, actuators and mission computers remain a constant challenge.

Indigenously developed Rustom Drone; Courtesy – Tarmak007.

India with its private and public-run PSU’s is slowly, but steadily mastering UAV technology. DRDO’s ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment) has developed several critical technologies. Private industries like L&T are contributing significantly to the program. The GAGAN navigation system developed by ISRO has enabled the country to attain a key milestone. But, the results of these collaborative efforts will be realised only after years.

Given India’s acute need for surveillance and UCAV drones, a viable option available would be to import or co-develop drones with foreign vendors. The ‘Make in India’ initiative of the Government has come as blessing in disguise for the country to meet the requirements of the forces.

The Government has been earnestly scouting for import options. However, given the strategic value these systems carry, options are extremely limited. Even though India’s trusted partners Israel and USA have offered their UAVs to India, they have largely been limited to the unarmed platforms.

In USA’s war against global terrorism, UAV’s are at the epicentre of what is widely known as the ‘targeted/signature assassination’ program through which the country is estimated to have neutralized more than 3000 terrorists.

Realising the capabilities of these systems, India has shown keen interest in America’s fleet of MQ9 Reaper drones. Successive governments have tried relentlessly to obtain these highly capable unmanned vehicles. However, international export control norms had blocked India’s mission. With the country’s inclusion to MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), decks have now been cleared for acquiring these drones.

US based General Atomics (GA) is all set to export 22 Predator-XP drones, a variant of the Predators, to the Indian Navy. As far as the Air Force’s needs are concerned, the Government is in dialogue with both US and Israeli OEMs. General Atomics, one of the world’s largest unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturer, had in its first media ‘open house’ revealed that the company is closing in an order of 90 systems for its Avenger Drone systems from an international customer.  This has given way to rumours of Indian Air Force being the international customer.

GA Avenger undergoing a test flight; Source – GA.

Avengers, which have been under development since the late 2000s for the US military, unlike their predecessors, are powered by efficient turbofan engines, which enable them to be on stations for a much longer time. By design, the Avenges are capable of conducting covert strikes as stealth, is an integral part of the aerial platform. The internal payload bay only enhances the stealth and thus the strike capabilities of the drone system.

India is actively tapping IAI (Israel Aerospace Industry) that has provided India with some of the latest and lethal aerospace systems. The Government has already inked a deal for acquiring 10 TP variants, which can be fitted with weaponry systems. The induction of these systems, however, is caught in the whirlwind of Israel’s reluctance to transfer critical technologies.

Given the strategic value these systems carry, every single customer will remain reluctant to transfer critical technologies. It is, therefore, imperative that the local developmental agencies give a greater impetus for the development of these systems.

In the decades to come, the need for UAVs will increase by several folds. India will need surveillance drones to keep track of activities around the porous and troubled borders. At the same time, armed drones or UCAVs will be required to address the growing internal and external skirmish.

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