• 02 February, 2023
Geopolitics & National Security
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India Needs A Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Revolution

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Wed, 30 Nov 2022   |  Reading Time: 6 minutes

It is Balakot 2.0 kind of night, with a different target and different platform. It would be remembered as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) night. A swarm of decoy UAVs took off from a secret location in north India and crossed to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). Following them were several High-Altitude Long Range (HALE) surveillance and reconnaissance UAVs with Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities.

The Chinese and Pakistani forces engage the incoming decoys with missile and artillery firing. This destroyed many drones, forcing balance to return to Indian airspace. Both ‘iron brothers’ were jubilant and celebrated their victory. They didn’t realize that Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) drones had started tracking the position of all fixed and mobile SAM and artillery sites. This was followed by Electronic Warfare (EW) drones jamming most enemy radars and the swarm of low-cost drones saturating the balance. Soon, loitering munitions engaged and destroyed most of those sites.

Finally, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) waiting in the wings swung into action and bombed today’s target, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), unopposed and unchallenged. All this while Indian forces were sitting in their camouflaged trailers in some remote area of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) monitoring the operation.

This is a hypothetical scenario showcasing the power and effectiveness of unmanned aerial systems in a future war. The operations would not be so simplistic, and the enemy would not be so naive. What I am trying to depict here is that just like aerial warfare had revolutionized the second World War, in a similar fashion, the outcome of any future war would depend upon these technologies. Any country that harnesses the power of these technologies will be a great power in the times to come.

The Indian UAV Journey 

Every country has drawn lessons from the gulf war, where UAVs did a spectacular job. Indian armed forces were among them and forayed into the drone domain by the late 90s. The Indian Army, followed by the Navy and the Air Force, started buying Israeli Heron and Searcher, Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs.

The 90s UAV procurements paid dividends in the Kargil war with Pakistan. But like other militaries, the Indian forces could not comprehend that something low-cost and unmanned could be so effective.

Recently, the Indian Navy leased two MQ-9B Sea Guardian High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs from the United States. The Indian Army is also procuring Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft and a fixed-wing hybrid UAV called Switch UAV from Mumbai-based company ideaForge Technologies worth $20 million. The Indian Army has also floated a tender to procure more than 2200 drones of mostly smaller sizes to meet several requirements.

Today India has a modest fleet size of under 200 military MALE drones, out of which ten are reportedly armed drones – Haron-TP. India has also been toying with buying 30 MQ-9B armed drones from the United States for a while. In addition, as reported, the Indian Army acquired 100 SkyStriker loitering munitions in 2019, while the Indian Air Force possesses close to 170 larger Harop loitering munitions.

The mid-90s saw India’s Defence Research Development Organization’s (DRDO) Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) jumping into the UAV race. They started working on several UAVs.

DRDO UAVs:

  • Abhyas: High-speed Expendable Aerial Target, under development
  • Rustom 1: Short Range Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (SR-RPAS), under development
  • Rustom 2 (Previously TAPAS-BH-201): Under development
  • Imperial Eagle: Mini Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) UAV
  • Kapothaka: Predecessor of Nishant UAV system
  • Lakshya: Re-usable high subsonic aerial target system, inducted in the Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Air Force in the 2000s
  • Nishant: Surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, and artillery support UAV, inducted into the Indian Army
  • Archer: Short-range unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) under development
  • Ghatak: autonomous jet-powered stealthy UCAV, under development

NAL/ADE/HAL UAVs:

  • Black Kite: Micro Air Vehicle (MAV), technology demonstrator
  • Golden Hawk: MAV, technology demonstrator
  • Pushpak: MAV, technology demonstrator
  • Slybird: Small UAV, under development
  • CATS: HAL Combat Air Teaming System program, under development

From the preceding, it is clear that very rarely any Indian design has reached its fruition. DRDO blames the armed forces for not accepting their products; on the other hand; the armed forces blamed DRDO for pushing the UAVs their way that did not meet their requirements. It is beyond comprehension that there is a country that is preparing to send astronauts into space but cannot produce a worthy UAV.

Complacency And Policy Paralysis

By 2006 the United States had over 1000 UAVs, and by 2010 the numbers had swelled to 7500. But still, it was not considered a significant achievement by the conventional forces. Even though the U.S. has had armed drones since 2001, in June 2019, an Iranian missile stuck the U.S. RQ-4N Global Hawk UAV over the Strait of Hormuz. It was one of the most expensive planes in the U.S. inventory. The Americans were in shock. Until now, the U.S. had operated these expensive machines against unopposed rag-tag forces, making them complacent. They never thought that drones would also need a strategy and protection.

While the western and major Asian powers were dilly-dallying about drone warfare, Iran was already using drone swarms. Iran gave a jolt to Israel in 2004 when their slow-moving Mirsad drone penetrated the Israeli air defences. Even terrorist organizations were more innovative than many mature countries. Houthis had become pioneers in utilizing and modifying Iranian drones. Hezbollah and Hamas were also mastering these techniques. But, the Iranian swarm drone attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq in 2019 sent shockwaves worldwide. This forced these powers to rethink their air defences.

Similarly, Turkey’s inexpensive drones showed that drones could give an instant air force to even the most impoverished nation. Even though China has an impressive lineup of military UAVs, their systems have not proven themselves in any conflict. Their serviceability rate is low, and the crash rate is very high.

If the Houthi drone attack in 2019 on Shaybah natural gas site was a dry run for the Abqaiq attack in Saudi Arabia, then Pakistan’s drone attack on Air Force Station Jammu in June 2021 could have been a dry run for a bigger plan, which did not materialize. So what did India and other countries do? Practically, they are still searching for the answers.

From these examples, many lessons emerge:

  • Conventional forces would resist any change that challenges their authority
  • Conventional air defences are ineffective against drone swarms
  • Innovative technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) etc. would revolutionize warfare beyond recognition
  • Unmanned platforms should be primarily low-cost and in large numbers

Way Forward For India

Without dominating modern domains, India cannot win modern wars. Unmanned vehicles are one such domain. India must create a vast inventory of these drones, from small to large, stealthy to super long endurance. This is required because diversity is needed to make an enemy guessing. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous technology would further revolutionize the India UAV quest. But above all, these platforms should be low-cost so that even the enemy would think twice before wasting a missile or rocket on it.

Now creating a large inventory of UAVs is not enough. Protection against enemy UAVs is equally essential. Three hundred sixty degrees of radar coverage and optical ways to see approaching enemy UAVs are the need of the hour. In addition, countermeasures like compact, affordable, and lethal solid-state lasers, gun interceptors, jammers, and counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) systems would also be needed. These systems should be manoeuvrable so that they complement other systems.

India needs to work parallel on a system that would network all manned and unmanned units together on the battlefield. Because the autonomy of these drones is progressing at a fast pace, eventually, they will not need pilots. Rather, in the future, these machines would make even the man-in-the-loop outdated. However, that is still far away until reliable full autonomy is achieved.

Data collection of enemy systems and safeguarding own data would be paramount and help achieve full autonomy. The data collected by ISR drones would be immensely important while dealing with a complex enemy; however, the challenge for the Indian armed forces won’t be just the data collection; rather, it would be what to do with all the data being collected. Therefore, the importance of AI, autonomy, and algorithms will keep increasing. These achievements would give forces freedom from filtering the data and make decision-making easier.

Conclusion

ISR, combat, and autonomous UAVs sound exotic, but there is still some more time before they do the effective teaming work on a battlefield. That is good news for India. India must utilize this time and start working on fully autonomous systems and make it their core strength. Because, eventually, the autonomous systems would be fighting the wars, and humans would be writing the algorithms.

India has the largest pool of skilled AI and coding workforce in the world. The Indian entrepreneur is also very enterprising. Civilian know-how and talent must be tapped for these innovations. Ever since the present central government has given the go-ahead for Private-Public Partnership (PPP), floodgates of all kinds of indigenous drones have opened.

Many think India has lost the UAV race due to its passive approach. However, I believe India is on the cusp of a drone revolution. This technological race is a marathon, not a sprint, and India has not missed any bus. The way the industry has responded to the requirements of the armed forces is noteworthy.

The biggest beneficiary of the drone revolution would be the Indian Air Force. Today it maintains 35 fighter squadrons instead of the required 42. The UCAV squadrons would be a reasonable option to fulfil that gap. The Indian industry could easily be another beneficiary. If they rise to the occasion, they can corner a big chunk of the $100 billion the world militaries are likely to spend on drones in the coming decade.

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Author
A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.

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POST COMMENTS (12)

Woody

Dec 02, 2022
Indeed mate, if the world wars have taught us anything ... they have taught us how valuable is air-superiority.

Sanjeev Mittal

Dec 02, 2022
Nice article narrating where are still behind on this remote power, great comparative analysis of fire arms of various other countries. Thanks for another amazing article sir. Regards.. Sanjeev

CDR DEEPAK SINGH

Dec 01, 2022
We need armed UAVs. Very nice post as usual. Sharing.

COL SANDEEP CHOUDHARY

Dec 01, 2022
Excellent forethought and vision for secured India

Sreenivas

Dec 01, 2022
Very well analysed Sandy. Glad to see that India is focused on mastering the drone technology. Surprised to see Iran and Turkey were way ahead in Drone Technology way back in early 2000!! I think we should be wary even of countries which are in different continents and not only our neighbours as this can be done remotely. What if they smuggle them inside and attack us from within.A mere attack on Nuclear power plants or Power lines can throw a nation dependent on Technology and internet off gear.

Levina

Dec 01, 2022
Thank you Cdr Sandeep Dhawan for keeping us abreast with the latest news on Drones. It makes sense when the author says that the biggest beneficiary of the drone revolution would be the Indian Air Force. Lets hope Govt is listening.

Arvind Pande

Nov 30, 2022
It's a need of hr. In future all Aviation will be unmanned. Fighters, transports n helicopters will be more accurate without human error. Very well thought analysis

Nitin A S

Nov 30, 2022
1. Very interesting, thought provoking and futuristic read. Most modern Armies have realised the importance of drone warfare in future battles and started inducting various UAVs to stay ahead of the curve. 2. Absolutely essential for us to draw a drone strategy, keeping in view our adversaries capabilities, op environment and tactics. 3. Drone technology must form part of military courses and wargames, where its innovative use should be encouraged. Based on the op need assessment, requirement of various types of drones should be worked out. The projected qualitative requirements must be achievable in a time bound manner. Adherence to time lines by the R&D and manufacturers is critical as the change in technology is fast paced, risking obsolescence. 4. On the lines of hackathon, there could be dronathon between Institutes of national repute. One of the IITs could be the nodal centre, to oversee complete R and D programme and ensure synergy of effort between various stake holders. 5. Seeing its vast potential, Hope to see India as Vishwaguru in Drone Technology in the next few years

Anupam

Nov 30, 2022
A thought provoking article. Exhaustive and comprehensive. It missed a point or two....like what should india di for making low cost UAVs. PPP or pvt startups is the way forward.A family of Quadcopters with interchangeable load from HD cameras to TI to LRF to grenade carriers to self destruct with some explosive on them for tac use ...can be an answer. These can be made in numbers and are quite cheap... Training is also not difficult and carriage and use is simple... Secondly, flying these Quadcopters should be made an integral part of training curriculum, from unit level competitions ....to fmn levels ones. U don't require specialist to fly these simple machines, which are been flown by kids now a days.

Saikumar B

Nov 30, 2022
Very important need that actually needs a special status as a National project. Present capabilities of uav in the intended domain of use is very poor in India. The sensors, semiconductors and battery technology has to be mastered from recycling waste.

Cdr Pradeep Dixit SC NM

Nov 30, 2022
A good insight into the requirements that should be addresses by the decision makers expeditiously. The PPP model is most probably the best one to push the case and take it forward to closure. Well written and appropriately covered the key issues.....

Narinder Pal Singh Hora

Nov 30, 2022
A very valid issue brought forward by the writer. It is very difficult to detect incoming UAV's as has been evident by such attacks on oil facilities in Gulf which were being protected by advance US systems. Though India has the talented workforce in AI and coding, but how this fits in the strategic and tactical thinking of the country as whole and armed forces in particular is important. Hope, the armed forces in India are doing brainstorming in this regard

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