Imperative On a star studded night, two Heron drones of the Indian Air Force (IAF) loitered in the skies, even as 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 ever carried out.

The pictures in question were of ‘terror launch pads’, which were situated across the border in Pakistan, occupied Kashmir 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, 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. Heron drones here, were on an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operation.

On the intervening nights of September 29th and 30th, India’s elite Para commandos descended upon these terror launch pads in stealth and conducted a impeccable surgical strike. It left the terror organizations grappling for breath as brave men avenged the killing of their brethren in cold blood.

Even as the Para’s dispatched terrorists, the Heron drones were back in the sky streaming live time operational feed to South Block and PMO. As the operation unfolded, there were two major concerns; Pakistan was bound to retaliate, if it got hint of the operation. A full-scale escalation was bound to follow.

Had Pakistan retaliated the collateral would have been unimaginable. India would have lost more brave hearts, which had crossed the border putting their life at risk. These concerns would have been answered had India opted for ‘covert strike’ over the risky ‘surgical strike’. But India lagged credible systems to mount such an operation.

An efficient and preferred choice for conducting covert strikes in this era is 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.

For military forces worldwide, they have served as eyes and ears on battlefield. They have provided unmatched intelligence and live operational picture, be it in the scorching deserts of Syria and Iraq or freezing heights in Afghanistan.

Indigenously developed Rustom Drone. Courtesy - Tarmak007.

Indigenously developed Rustom Drone.
Courtesy – Tarmak007.

For Indian forces, the need for drones 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 India’s internal and external war 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) s. 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. IAF has employed these unmanned systems extensively for ISR operations along the borders of the country. The navy uses UAVs to keep a privy eye over India’s vast maritime interest. Indian Army has positioned several drones which have enabled the infantry to obtain live picture of operational area.

India has mainly relied on foreign vendors to cater for its UAV needs. Several indigenous programs with DRDO at the helm have been constituted to locally develop UAS. Nishant UAV, which DRDO had developed for the army has met with limited success. The Lakshya- target drone, is being inducted in phases by the forces.

DRDO is also actively working on the ‘Rustom Project’, under which, it envisions to supply forces with their maiden armed drones. Rustom has already made several flights exclusive of the weapons package. Multiple sources have indicated that the drone will make its maiden test firing of Helina ATGM very shortly.

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.

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.

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. Israel, which for decades has catered to India’s needs, has offered to jointly work with India to develop credible UAVs. One of India’s trusted ally, America has also expressed its willingness to work with India.

USA is a pioneer in drone technology. UAV’s are at the epicentre in America’s war against global terrorism. USA maintains what is widely known as the ‘target drone assassination’ program through which it is estimated to have neutralized more than 3000 terrorists.

India has shown keen interest in America’s fleet of Predator, Global Hawks and MQ9 Reaper drones. Successive governments have tried relentlessly to obtain these highly capable unmanned vehicles. But 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.

Indigenously developed Rustom Drone.  Courtesy - Tarmak007.

Indigenously developed Rustom Drone.
Courtesy – Tarmak007.

US based Global Atomics, a pioneer in aerospace and defence technology, is the manufacturer of these drones. The company anticipating orders from India has set-up its office in New Delhi. Taking note of the forces need the government has recently forwarded a LoR (Letter of Request) for 22 Predator-XP drones. The XP variant is was designed specifically for export customers and lacks weapon stations. These drones will be operated by the Indian Navy for Long Range (LR) maritime surveillance along the vast IOR.

Predator drones are MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAV’s. Powered by two turbo engines, these UAV’s are capable of hovering for over 35 hours at altitudes above 25,000 feet. Predator drones have been extensively used for ISR and strike operations by US.

Air Force has listed the need for around 100 drones, if inducted will be used for surveillance and strike missions. IAF has been pursuing for the armed variant Predator MQ-1 drones.

If America indeed supports India in its hunt for UAVs, both partners stand to gain mutual ground in the Asia-Pacific region. The drones acquired will primarily be employed by India to keep a privy eye over the Chinese. As India’s maritime interest expands in the IOR surveillance platforms will become a necessity. For America, it will be a major boost to its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. Discreetly, US would have answered the growing Chinese menace in the region.

Israel under its IAI (Israel Aerospace Industry) has provided India with some of the latest and lethal aerospace systems. One such system is the Heron drone,which has an endurance of over 50 hours. Serving under the Air Force and the Navy, these drones have emerged as India’s eyes and ears. India currently has 50 of these drones and has committed to at least 10 TP variants which can be fitted with weaponry systems. India also operates the Israeli origin Harop drone which is a home-in self destruct combat vehicle.

Israel has been a steady fast supporter in India’s mission to attain self reliance in defence manufacturing. The country has been vocal about its support to India’s defence industry. Israel has in principle agreed to help India develop drones indigenously. It promises to transfer several critical technologies to India if a sizable order is placed.

Global Hawk UAV is one of the biggest drone to have ever been developed.

Global Hawk UAV is one of the biggest drone to have ever been developed.

DRDO has shown keen interest to work with Israel on the Heron drones. This will enable India to gain technical know-how and this can further be used in the Rustom project. It is a win-win situation to both the players.

European companies like Thales and BAE systems are also pursuing multiple drone development programs. France based Thales group is a leader in aerospace technologies. The company has offered to co-develop the ‘Watchkeeper’ UAS with India. Watchkeeper was built for the Britain forces and has seen action in Afghanistan while supporting the Coalition forces.

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 its borders. At the same time, armed drones or UCAVs will be required to address the growing internal and external skirmish.

Indigenous programs will take time to gain traction given the complexities developmental agencies face. A safer option would be to import and co-develop UAS with countries which have mastered the technology. This will not only answer the forces acute need but will also provide critical know-how technology to the developmental agencies.

© Karthik Kakoor