UAVs are now an essential part of all modern armed forces’ inventories. They are cheaper than modern aircraft and eliminate the risk of losing a pilot. The tasks that they can undertake are decided by the payload carried by the UAV. The multiplicity of such tasks is increasing in range to go beyond combat functions and be useful for logistical tasks, too. UAVs are required for both tactical intelligence gathering and strategic functions. Their endurance, load carrying capacity, survivability and multi-role employment are all important areas where development is being undertaken. The General in his article provides very concise inputs on the status of these unmanned platforms today and the future trends we will witness in the not too distant future.
UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLEs (UAV)
ENHANCING COMBAT POTENTIAL AND EMERGING TRENDS
The revolution in unmanned warfare has been a long time coming. In the past decade Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have progressed from being of limited use in the Intelligence and Situational Awareness (ISA) role to being a key component of combat operations as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, with single platforms now capable of achieving the entire find, fix track, engage and assess kill chain. UAVs today are also providing exclusive capability to forces engaged in sub conventional operations, especially in the global war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Current technologies make today’s UAVs more sophisticated than ever and are expanding their role in combat operations. As range, altitude and loiter time increase the UAVs are provi ding beyond line of sight reconnaissance, fires and over watch. This has been amply demonstrated by the extensive and successful employment of the US
Global Hawk and Predator UAVs for all types of missions, both ISR and combat, during Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. Some of these UAVs/UC (Combat)AVs were being piloted for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from halfway across the world in Nevada and California; as much as 8000 miles from the killing zone, providing real time video feeds to troops on ground. However, the vast majority of roughly 1500 UAVs flying in Iraq and Afghanistan were much smaller e.g.,‘Raven’ controlled by soldiers and marines on the ground They were an essential component of ISR.
Today, technologically advanced militaries across the world have incorporated UAVs as a new critical and combat capability enhancing component of their inventory.
While Israel and USA have been the pioneers in UAV development and employment, at least 14 other countries are now using / developing over 76 different types of UAVs for all types of ISR missions including combat.
Chinese and Pakistani Capabilities
China and Pakistan are adding UAVs with varied capabilities to their inventory and have expressed interest in developing and procuring UAVs with enhanced capabilities, including armed versions. During the last decade China has unveiled more than 25 different models of UAVs, prominent among them being the WJ600 combat UAV capable of carrying missiles. Another significant development has been the armed rotary drone, called the Sky Saker H-300 capable of operating from ships.
Pakistan too has conducted operations in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) using the Burraq UCAV. This is most likely the Chinese Caihong (CH3/CH4) UCAV assembled in Pakistan – also being used by Iraq in West Asia.
India has not been left out of the Global UAV push, with a major thrust of its armed forces modernization plans focusing on augmenting their current meagre resources – the Israeli Searcher II, Heron (MALE) and the Israeli Harop armed, self-destruct UAVs. While India’s 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’ – a 1100 – 1300 Kg UAV, with a maximum altitude of 35000 feet and 300 km range.
Rustom has three versions, the Rustom1 being the tactical UAV, Rustom H to replace the Heron in the long run and the Rustom2 the combat version. With the Make in India thrust, the Rustom development will be undertaken by an outside agency including the private sector – L&T, Tata’s and HAL – along with Bharat Electronics combine are contenders for this project.
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. As per DRDO the project is awaiting Government approval and will take a decade to fructify.
Although large size UAVs have been procured by the armed forces there has been no movement on the Micro and Mini UAVs, including man pack, which are essential for the tactical battle area and CI/CT operations. While RFPs in this regard were floated by the army some time back there has been little or no progress so far. With the entry of the private sector into defence manufacturing, this segment is likely to get a boost, especially with their dual usage in civil and military roles.
Reports indicate that the Indian Army is also on the lookout for Miniature UAVs (MAVs), which can evade enemy radar, are easy to handle and are also capable of carrying explosives to act as killer drones for small but high value targets. The main aim is to use them for monitoring mountainous terrain, conflict zones and congested urban areas. The MAVs would be very useful in CI/CT operations in J&K and the North East. These could weigh as less as 2 kg and have an endurance of 30 minutes at a stretch.
The increasing demand and reliance on UAVs in war fighting and peace keeping operations has enhanced the pace of UAV related research and development in recent years. Achieving information superiority, minimising collateral damage, fighting effectively in urban area against widely dispersed forces, striking autonomously and precisely are areas where UAVs will be increasingly indispensable. The three major thrusts in UAV development are growth in size of strategic UAVs for better endurance and payload (solar power), reduction in size of tactical UAVs, weaponisation of UAVs to offer lethal capability in combat missions and autonomy – commonly defined as ability of the machine to take decisions without human intervention. The promise of an autonomous and highly survivable UAV will usher in a new paradigm in which the ultimate consideration is no longer the value of pilots lives, but the mission and cost effectiveness of UAVs.
The continued development of strategic and tactical UAVs follows the line of employing UAVs as multirole multi-mission platforms. Strategic UAVs will see growth in size for better endurance, reliability and payload capacity, while the mini and micro UAVs will grow smaller, lighter and more expendable. The tactical close range platforms will become more versatile with multirole multi mission capability. Passive and low signature sensors are essential to boost stealth and survivability of UAVs. Noteworthy advances include Hyper-Spectral imaging, Laser radar, synthetic aperture radar and moving target indicator.
Increasing demand of better performance and higher reliability will escalate the development and production costs of UAVs. Whether the platform is designed to be even more reliable than an aircraft depends on its application, the pay load it carries, mission pay off and cost effectiveness. The development of larger size UAVs (fixed wing and rotary) in the cargo carriage role is already underway, with the lead being taken by US companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Some of these systems like Lockheed Martin’s unmanned K-MAX helicopter has been successfully deployed in Afghanistan to augment Marine Corps ground and air logistics operations.
Sikorsky in cooperation with the US Army has successfully demonstrated optionally piloted flight of a ‘Black Hawk’ helicopter – this is a significant development towards not only providing autonomous cargo delivery capability but also gives the commander the flexibility of launching crewed or unmanned operations depending on the situation. As per reports the US is developing a Carrier based Drone to provide sea based support in the Pacific – Northrop Grummans prototype X-47B has already been tested for deck landings. World over, militaries are looking at
technologies to develop UAVs with endurance capabilities not in hours and months but in years – the American VULTURE (Very High Altitude Ultra Endurance Theatre Unmanned Recconaisance System) program of DARPA is one such project. The DRDO is also scouting for partners for developing a solar powered HALE-UAV.
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. UAVs are a critical combat multiplier that is rapidly becoming an organic necessity for all modern armies. Future UAVs may be able to perform a variety of tasks moving beyond their present roles in intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strikes to re-supply, combat search and rescue, aerial refueling and air to air combat (currently a difficult proposition).
The US Department of Defence’s ‘Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap 2013-2038’, foresees UAVs having a more important place in combat. In the meantime, the debate on manned vs unmanned aircraft and whether the days of manned combat aircraft are numbered, continues. While the UAV is an innovative weapon system, it not yet capable of replacing the manned aircraft, the main drawbacks being the situational awareness and the ability to analyse its operational environment.
The way forward is to integrate manned and unmanned platforms and satellite based sensors in order to attain an integrated operational picture. 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.
Lt Gen B S Pawar (Retd)