The ‘Unmanned’ has graduated to the new contemporary for some time now. Swarms offer the capability of saturating the enemy’s detection and engagement means. Unmanned platforms are also usable in the sea, air and ground. The author provides information on the best models available with the US and also our adversaries. He also informs on progress made on Indian models that could well be the mainstay of our drone inventory tomorrow.
Conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen, as well as areas of geopolitical conflicts like the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea, are seeing increased use of UAVs (unmanned ariel vehicle) of varying size and sophistication, especially in combat. Closer home we have seen a major increase in deployment of UAVs by both India and China in the current standoff in Eastern Ladakh. Drone warfare has become a crucial element of modern war with armed drones being used extensively in military operations, the latest being their widespread use in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh region last year.
The targeted killing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards General Suleimani by an American drone in Iraq in January 2020 and the recent attack on the Saudi oil facilities, by the Iranian, backed Houthi Rebels in Yemen this month are other areas where the armed drones are now being used as an accepted norm. Even their usage by ‘Non-State Actors’ does not raise eyebrows anymore, a very dangerous trend indeed. In India too there have been numerous instances of small drones foraging from across our western borders and dropping weapons like AK-47 rifles and grenades in the border areas of Punjab and J&K, the acts no doubt of ‘Non-State Actors’ supported fully by the security establishment of Pakistan.
Current technologies make UAVs more sophisticated than ever and are expanding their role in military operations with ‘Drone Swarms’ emerging as a real game-changer in future conflicts – many countries have already demonstrated their capabilities in this emerging technology. India too has taken baby steps in this direction with the Indian Army demonstrating an ‘Offensive Drone Swarm System’, consisting of 75 indigenously designed and developed rotary drones that executed an array of Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled simulated offensive missions and close air support. A beginning has been made and as per reports, the Army along with the New Space Research and Technologies Company, a Bangalore based startup is looking at a Swarm of 1000 rotary drones very soon.
Today, technologically advanced militaries across the world have incorporated UAVs as a new critical and combat enhancing component of their inventory. While Israel and the USA have been the pioneers in UAV development and employment, at least 24 other countries are currently developing new military unmanned aircraft for all types of Intelligence Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) missions including combat. Currently, China appears to have the most active ongoing UAV development programs, but Turkey is fast emerging as a new dynamic entrant in this area.
The Bayraktar TB2 combat UAV designed and developed by Turkey’s drone manufacturer ‘Baykar Defence’ has been extensively used in Syria, Libya and in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflicts. As per reports, Baykar Defence is currently working on a top priority project for the development of an AI-powered combat drone that would be used in close air support and strategic assault missions. UAVs are no doubt the future warhorse and the country with the best drone technology would certainly have an advantage in any future conflict- India, unfortunately, has lagged and has a lot of catching up to do in this crucial domain.
China, Pak Capabilities, and the Indian Story
In recent years China has unveiled a variety of UAVs with enhanced capabilities, including armed versions some of which have parallels to foreign equivalents. The majority of the units are equipped with the Caihong (CH3, CH4 & CH5) and Wing Loong (Wing Loong I & II) types of UAVs in the MALE category and the WZ-7 also known as the ‘Soaring Dragon’ in the HALE category. The WZ-7 is known to have been operating in the current India-China standoff in eastern Ladakh. What is of interest and concern is the display of two highly technologically advanced UAVs during the National Day Parade last year, the GJ-II and the WZ-8 for the first time by China. While the GJ-II is stated to be a Stealth UCAV with long-range strike capability, the WZ-8 is a supersonic reconnaissance UAV.
It will also be worthwhile to mention that China today stands as the third-largest exporter of UAVs after the USA, and Israel – Pakistan is a major beneficiary of these exports from China. Pakistan unlike India holds and operates many indigenously developed UAVs, prominent among them being the Uquaab, Jasoos, Vector and the Burraq UCAV. The Burraq has been extensively used for conducting operations in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) against terrorists- this is most likely the Chinese Caihong (CH3/CH4) UCAV assembled/manufactured in Pakistan. What is of concern is the reported proposed sale of 48 Chinese Wing Loong-2 high end armed drones to Pakistan by China – some reports have also hinted at a joint venture to manufacture in Pakistan – The Wing Loong II is considered in the class of American MQ-1 Predator.
India presently is the largest importer of UAVs and currently has an inventory of 200 plus UAVs/drones like the Searcher II, Heron (MALE) and a limited number of armed Harop self-destruct drones, all of Israeli origin. The Indian military is acutely aware of this chink in its armour and is addressing the issue on priority in its modernization plans.
The Indian Air Force has already acquired 10 Heron TP UAVs from Israel which is an upgraded and armed version of Heron (Israeli Eitan), capable of carrying bombs and missiles – this acquisition was facilitated after India became a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
As per reports in a very significant development, the Army is also acquiring four Heron-TPs on lease from Israel under the emergency procurement procedure. India is also likely to go ahead with ‘Project Cheetah’ which involves the upgrade of the existing Heron fleet to include its arming by the Israel Aerospace Industries.
Also of great strategic significance is the acquisition of two Sea Guardian drones, the naval version of the MQ-9B Predator-B drones on lease by the Navy. These were acquired directly from the American firm ‘General Atomics’ last year under the ‘emergency procurement’ of Defence Procurement Procedure-2020 and were also operationally employed in Eastern Ladakh – the MQ-9B is one of the deadliest surveillance and armed drones in the world.
Reports indicate that India is looking at prospects to acquire 30 such drones in the land and sea variants, 10 each for its three services. These are very significant developments indeed and will give a major boost to the military’s capabilities on our northern and western borders.
The progress and development on the indigenous front have been a mixed bag. While DRDOs Nishant tactical UAV project (catapult launch and parachute recovery) for the army has been a failure, due to a faulty design in the recovery phase, India is in the process of developing a UAV in the Heron / Predator class of MALE UAVs, called ‘Rustom’ – an 1100 – 1300 Kg UAV, with a maximum altitude of 35000 feet and 300 km range. It has three versions, the Rustom1 being the tactical UAV, the Rustom H to replace the Heron in the long run and the Rustom-II the combat version. The Rustom-II has been re-designated as a Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon 201(‘Tapas 201’) and is similar to the American Predator with the capability of reconnaissance, combat and support missions. Presently undergoing developmental tests it will provide capability enhancement to the military once inducted into service.
India’s most prized indigenous drone program is the development of the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA). With the AURA having accomplished its stated mission of research into future Indian UCAVs, the DRDO has embarked on the development of Ghatak, which will be a high-speed stealth UCAV, capable of autonomously seeking, identifying and destroying targets, with missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions. Reports reveal that this new combat drone will be powered by the indigenous Kaveri derivative engine ( dry variant) without the afterburner and will feature a flying wing design similar to the US ‘B-2 Spirit’ a stealth bomber. As per DRDO, the project is futuristic and is likely to take about 5-6 years to fructify.
Drone Swarms in Future Conflict
Drone Swarms have already seen combat though in a very limited context and numbers involved. The attack on two Russian bases in Syria in January 2018 by suspected Islamist rebels and the subsequent attack on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 by the Houthi rebels causing substantial damage are illustrative of the use of drone swarms effectively. Drone swarm technology involves the ability of a group of very large number of Micro/Mini Drones/UAVs to autonomously make decisions based on shared information and has the potential to revolutionise the dynamics of conflict, with the world inching ever closer to seeing this potential unleashed.
Swarming technology is likely to introduce changes in structure of drones by installing mission payloads on multiple mini drones. The US, UK and more recently China have successfully tested this technology, with China demonstrating a swarm of 1000 drones at the Guangzhou air show during the Lantern Festival in 2018 setting a new Guinness World Record. The US has an entire research program dedicated to the development of autonomous swarms called ‘Low Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology’ (LOCUST). Swarms will have significant military applications in almost all areas of national security. These include ISR missions over air, land and sea, identification and destruction of hostile surface to air missiles and other air defences, act as anti – drone weapon systems, detection of nuclear, biological and chemical radiations when equipped with suitable equipment, etc – a single swarm can be used for multiple purposes and is a far cheaper option than conventional, larger weapon systems.
Therein lies the danger of Non State Actors and Terrorist Entities using this technology for their narrow aims, thereby posing a grave threat to Nation States due to the low cost and easy access to acquire and arm these small drones.
India has made a modest beginning in this arena but has a long way to go. There is no dearth of startups in the country who are capable of design and development of mini and micro drones. The establishment of a Drone Directorate in the Ministry of Civil Aviation and setting up of a regulatory framework will no doubt give a fillip to these startups-there are more than 30 startups which are already active in the design and development of mini/micro drones. HAL along with New Space Research & Technologies is currently working on the design and development of swarm drones prototype the ALFA-S (Air Launched Flexible Asset-Swarm) which can be packed in containers and launched from aircraft.
Technology is driving the military application of UAVs into remarkable areas, with the possibilities seemingly endless. A crucial piece of technology that is required to take UAVs to the next level is a robust ‘sense and avoid ‘system allowing unmanned planes to fly safely in a congested airspace. Future UAVs may be able to perform a variety of tasks moving beyond their present roles in ISR and strikes to re-supply, combat search and rescue, aerial refueling and air to air combat.
The future combat arena may well see both the manned aircraft and the UAVs/UCAVs in complementary roles enhancing the overall combat potential of the force. Swarm Drones Technology is the new player off the block and will be a game changer in any future conflict especially in the Indian context. The Indian military along with the industry both public and private needs to work on these technologies on priority or else risk preparing to fight a 20th century war against a 21st century army.
By Lt Gen BS Pawar (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)