The decision of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to acquire 100 mini unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, will allow the organisation to hone its operational capabilities without looking over its shoulder all the time. The IAF going in for such a large suite of UAVs is obviously to strengthen its air base defences after the drone attack on a Jammu air base last year. That was a rude wake-up call for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on the clear and present danger posed by armed drones that sneak in from across the western and northern borders.
The MoD is now shopping for mini UAV platforms equipped with electro-optic and thermal imaging capability to detect targets on land and air from afar. This serves the dual purpose of thwarting cross-border terrorist activity as well as dealing with intruder drones. Not surprisingly, the IAF has awarded the contract for the UAVs to an Indian company in line with the government’s resolve to indigenise defence acquisitions. It also complements the IAF’s plan to protect air bases in the subcontinent with home-grown anti-drone systems.
UAVs have come a long way since American inventors Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt designed the first ‘aerial torpedo’ in 1916 by integrating three key technologies — automatic stabilisation, remote control and autonomous navigation — on a single aero-model. In 1930, defence scientists in Britain and the US used the aerial torpedo to develop radio controlled ‘target drones’ to train anti-aircraft gunners. But the potential of UAVs as a weapon of choice for armies was largely ignored even during the Cold War when the military-industrial complexes of the US and the erstwhile USSR merely considered UAVs as nuisance weapons. What a contrast from the current combat drones, with their reach and lethality, which are critical force multipliers indispensable to militaries across the world!
India was a late starter in the global military drone market which is currently estimated to be worth $12 billion, and predicted to grow to $31 billion in the next seven years. The country’s indigenous UAV programme was launched in the early 1980s when the IAF modified the American Northrop Chucker remotely piloted vehicle as a desi drone. Eventually, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) would use this as a template to develop the Lakshya target drone for practice firing of beyond-visual-range missiles.
The DRDO has since followed it up with several short range drones like the catapult-launched Nishant and its advanced variant, Gagan, equipped with a Synthetic Aperture Radar that produced high-resolution 3-D images. The real deal, however, is the vaunted Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV, Rustom 2 with auto landing capabilities ideal for surveillance and reconnaissance. A more advanced High Altitude Long Range drone is also being developed with an eye on the Sino-Indian border in eastern Ladakh.
New industry friendly policies announced by the government have clearly enabled India’s armed forces to explore the full potential of UAVs as force multipliers with the help of private players. This is evident in the expanding performance umbrella of the IAF’s UAVs from their recce and surveillance profiles to more dynamic roles like UAV assisted fighter/helicopter strikes and laser designation of targets. Army drones, once the exclusive preserve of the artillery, are now managed by the Army Aviation Corps to ensure their optimal use.
The Army is also procuring loitering munitions (drones carrying warheads that ‘loiter’ in the air before diving on ground targets) from Indian companies and these compare favorably with the Israeli-made Harop possessed by the IAF. MoD sources speak of plans to have various UAVs in army battalions before the decade is out, while the IAF would build half a dozen combat drone squadrons in the same time frame. The Indian Navy (IN) too has a shopping list for advanced shipborne drone systems to successfully counter Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean Region.
A major handicap for India’s armed forces is the absence of homegrown unmanned combat aerial vehicles like the US Predators and Reapers which are controlled by satellites and hit targets with missiles before returning to re-arm and carry out fresh sorties. This may change soon if the recent maiden flight of India’s Stealth Wing Flying Testbed — the prototype of a stealth combat drone — is any indication.Offensive UAV platforms like these however need to be complemented by a robust anti-drone capability like the IN’s Israeli Smash 2000 rifles that can track and destroy hostile UAVs. The army has its own jamming system which can detect and bring down quad copters (multi-rotor drones with four arms) at more than three kilometers; this is currently deployed along the western border and is a boon for troops stationed there.
But the challenge for defensive military technologies is that they are easily outpaced by offensive capabilities like, say, ‘swarm drones' — many drones attacking targets at the same time — fooling jammers and radars which identify the UAV horde as a single object. Defence planners know this only too well as they try to second guess the rapid mutation of disruptive technologies like drones.