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Significance of UAVs

In this day and age there can be no argument against the presence of the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) and the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the battlefield. They are fast becoming standard equipment in the order of battle (Orbat) of nearly every modern army. Although fears that they  could be lost in the battle are as likely to come true as in the case of manned aircraft the plus remains that no pilot (on whom as much is invested as in the purchase of an aircraft) is lost.

Nonetheless drones are not cheap either. However, their ability to deliver munitions on target very accurately is a coveted achievement. As of date the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

There cannot but be amazement at the accuracy with which the US has been able to detect and destroy wanted terrorists in the Pak-Afghan salient and in Yemen. It is great envy that is driving the desire of nations that want similar facilities.

Improving surveillance

India too is trying to create its own unmanned platforms and it has bought several types of UAVs from Israel ostensibly to improve the battlefield surveillance capability and situational awareness of the armed forces. Like with everything else that is of military use India is one of the largest importers of unmanned aerial vehicles. It has been buying the Heron and Searcher drones from Israel over the past two decades. They are said to have been very useful in detecting/locating victims of the massive tsunami that hit India’s eastern seaboard, washed away military facilities based on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and battered the Tamil Nadu coastline in 2004.

India has been using the Israeli drones for many years. The Searcher has only about 18 hour of endurance while the follow-on acquisition, the Heron, can stay aloft with an adequately configured sensor package for about 48 hours at heights of up to 30,000 ft-well out of range of ground-based artillery and small arms fire. The shortcomings in altitude and endurance of the Searcher I and Searcher II has prompted India to opt for the Heron UAV which has now been inducted into all the three Services.

India has simultaneously been developing its own UAV/UCAV capability and it has inducted the Nishant ramp-launched parachute-recovered  drone and has managed to convert the air-defence target practice Nishant drone into a surveillance and target-acquisition drone. Also in the research stable is the Rustam-I a medium altitude long-endurance  (MALE), the Rustam-II and the AURA unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) intended to give the armed forces a recessed weapons platform (delivered through a bomb bay) like the Canberras of old but more precise in their bombing because of the intrinsic laser guidance.

The exhilarating nature of the AURA platform is that it will be powered by the light combat aircraft rejected core engine (the Kabini) of the Kaveri because, as STRATEGIC AFFAIRS has so often iterated, that the efficacy of a flying platform depends on its engine and every indigenous effort must begin with an indigenous engine. Otherwise dependence on foreign sources will continue forever.

Once again the Americans are teaching India the hard lessons of overdependence. The US has cancelled the licence of a critical component for the Rustam-II-the actuators-thereby delaying the project further and forcing India to look for local sources for the component. It is amazing how gullible the DRDO can be when something similar was done to delay the LCA project when an Indian designed component was sent to the use for calibration.

The weaponisation of the Indian UCAVs will also have a salutary effect on the future of the indigenous fire-and-forget anti-tank missile the Nag, given the rather lukewarm response to the missile from the users. Nonetheless the Nag has already been fitted to an airborne platform known as the  Helina or helicopter-borne Nag platform derived from the homemade Dhruv rotorcraft. The Nag sensors are such that it does not require guidance to home onto enemy tanks in a top attack role where it can hit an armoured vehicle at its most vulnerable points.     


Also encouraging is the DRDO decision to promote greater public-private partnership in defence product creation by inviting companies that have shown in interest in defence production within the Make-in-India ambit to participate in the UAV/UCAV project. In the past private companies had baulked at participating in the Rustam projects because there was no clear commitment about how many vehicles would be bought by the armed forces. The government has clarified that the order book could exceed 75. Till the project fructifies India has shown interest in the Israeli Harpy which is essentially an airborne suicide bomber. It crashes into the intended target destroying itself and the target. However, India would prefer to have a re-useable platform which can return to home base for replenishment of fuel and weapons package. It would be cheaper than a suicide bomber.

On the related aspect of the security of UAV/UCAVs against electronic jamming, the Iranians have shown how it can be done. The Iranians did not shoot down the American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) but captured it by hacking into its electronics and diverting it to an airbase in  northeastern Iran. The Iranian government later announced that the UAV was brought down by its cyber warfare unit-much food for thought. This happened in 2011. Since then the exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum has grown by leaps and bounds in both the attack and defence applications with counter-measures. But the Iranians have shown  that it can be done. The Chinese have dedicated cyber warfare regiments and they have been practicing their art on American and European infrastructural facilities. If the Chinese have it, the Pakistanis too must have it. But that does not mean that India should lie down and play dodo. It must pursue the UAV/UCAV route.

However, in relation to its intended role of detecting jihadi infiltration into Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control they have made very little contribution given the easy manner in which Pakistan-trained terrorists have managed to cross over and wreak havoc on the hinterland. In fact, Pakistan has extended its area of penetration further southwards across the International Border in Punjab’s Gurdaspur segment severely jeopardizing Indian lines of communication to Jammu and Kashmir.

India has a huge landmass with strategic overview of three massive water bodies by the peninsular nature of its geography-the Arabian Sea in the west, the Bay of Bengal in the east and the Indian Ocean in the south. Except for some sporadic success in detecting attempted Pakistani infiltration across the maritime domain India has been totally clueless about how trained terrorists have managed to cross the Line of Control or be forewarned of intrusions by China across the Line of Actual Control. India needs to realize that why is this happening if it has invested so heavily on eyes in the sky projects? Indian military needs to significantly increase the use of UAVs for better monitoring of its borders and should also expedite the UCAV development program to have a strategic edge over its adversaries in time of crisis.