|New Predators - July 2012
|Armed UAVs, their strength & limitations and the future of air warfare
By Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
Modern warfare is characterised by highly mobile operations with the tactical scenario changing rapidly and the theatre of operations becoming more and more extensive. The advent of long range weapon systems and mechanization has extended the area of influence much beyond the line of sight of ground based sensors. In such a scenario field commanders require an organic, responsive, economically viable, multi source, long endurance, near real time reconnaissance capability to collect, process and report intelligence throughout the level of conflict. Additionally, commanders need the ability to obtain data from anywhere within enemy territory, 24 hours a day and regardless of weather.
With the limitations of ground based surveillance and target acquisition devices, aerial means are gaining greater importance. Manned aircrafts run a greater risk factor because of introduction of sophisticated fire control and missile systems. In such a scenario the answer lies in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). UAVs are remotely piloted or self piloted aircraft that can carry cameras, sensors, communication equipment, or other payloads. They have been used in the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering role since 1950s and more challenging roles are envisaged including combat missions. Unmanned vehicles are not impeded by restraints imposed on manned systems where both the aircraft and crew could be lost. Infact, they are increasingly being employed for missions that were hitherto the domain of manned aircraft.
From their early use as target drones and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), UAVs were employed for reconnaissance purposes during the Korean War by USA and subsequently as highly classified special purpose aircraft during the conflict in South East Asia. The revolution in unmanned warfare has been a long time coming and it got further impetus ever since the Israelis demonstrated how UAVs could be effectively used in operations in the Yom Kippur war in 1973 and subsequently in Lebanon. Interest in UAVs further intensified following their successful employment on the battlefield in Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom in Iraq- tactical and theatre level unmanned aircraft flew 100,000 flight hours in support of the above operations. In Afghanistan, the Global Hawk and Predator UAVs have been used extensively in carrying out both Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR) and combat missions. The United Nations and NATO activities in former Yugoslavia also brought international attention to the relevance of UAVs on the battlefield. While Israel and USA have been the pioneers in UAV development, today at least 14 countries are using/ developing over 76 different types of UAVs for surveillance, target acquisition, electronic warfare etc.
The basic employment philosophy of UAV systems is based on the type of UAV, its characteristics and the sensor package it carries. The requirement of a UAV system therefore is to satisfy surveillance requirements in close range, short range and endurance categories. The close and short range UAVs were subsequently classified as tactical UAVs, designed to support field commanders with near-real time imagery intelligence in the tactical battle space. Current military UAVs perform reconnaissance as well as attack missions. Though intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillances mission still remain the predominant roles, other areas of employment include electronic attack, strike missions, suppression and/ or destruction of enemy air defence, network node or communications relay and combat search and rescue.
UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too dull, dirty or dangerous for manned aircraft. The concept of killer/ hunter UAVs for strike missions is a reality in Afghanistan. The Predator which is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV carries two ‘hellfire’ missiles. The Predator is currently being used for strike mission against the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. Some of these UAVs are being piloted for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from halfway across the world in Nevada and California, more than 8000 miles from the killing zone. UAVs provide real time video feeds to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that help in tracking enemy movements. The US air force guides its Predators and High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Global Hawk UAVs which can stay aloft for more than 20 hours watching a battlefield. The vast majority of roughly 1500 UAVs flying in Iraq and Afghanistan are much smaller, controlled by soldiers and marines. The smallest is the ‘Raven’, about the size of a large model airplane with a wing span of three feet, which is sometimes mistaken for a bird flying high in the sky.
Some specific military roles of UAVs relative to the tactical battle space are enumerated below:
a) Reconnaissance and surveillance to include target acquisition, direction of observed artillery fire (DOOAF), Post Strike Damage Assessment (PSDA) and Laser designation for other weapon platforms.
b) Electronic warfare and communication relay.
c) Direction of close air support.
d) Deception and psychological operations
e) Meteorology missions
f) Route and landing reconnaissance support
UAVs in CI/ CT
CI/CT operations require timely, responsive and accurate intelligence to succeed and the UAV is the best suited weapon platform for this task. The UAV is capable of operating in a permissive as well as non permissive (within another country’s sovereign airspace) environment and with a variety of sensors suitable for single or multi mission operations. The sensor can transmit information based on detection, identification and location of militant groups to intelligence agencies or to surveillances teams. UAVs could also provide support to troops on the ground during the operations in terms of real time image or signal intelligence via a secure downlink. An armed UAV overhead could provide timely on scene firepower, a situation regularly being played out in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan.
Experience of the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and the expertise of the Israeli defence forces of using UAVs in conventional as well as non conventional operations bring out several valuable lessons which can be suitably exploited in our present CI/CT environment. Two of the most important of these lessons are ‘Complete Battlefield Dominance’ and ‘Closing the Sensor to Shooter Loop’. This involves establishing a continuous surveillance grid of the area of interest, duly integrated with the forces on the ground fighting CI/CT operations, thereby establishing a system capable of disseminating this intelligence to more than one user in real time for its timely and efficient exploitation. The success of OP GERONIMO to get Osama Bin Laden is clearly illustrative of this factor.
However, our CI/CT environment differs from experiences of other countries in terms of terrain, vastness of area, limited availability of UAV resources and their capabilities. Hence it is not possible to achieve similar results in terms of both coverage as well as technological capabilities in near real time frame to the end user. Nonetheless UAVs are being used extensively in ISR roles for CI/CT operations including in the Naxal infected areas.
UAVs in India
Successful use of UAVs mostly in the Asian region has generated the interest of many countries. China and Pakistan are adding UAVs of various capabilities to their armed forces and have expressed interests in developing and procuring UAVs with enhanced capabilities, including armed versions. During the Zhuhai air show, China unveiled more than 25 different models of UAVs, prominent among them being the WJ600 combat UAV. The WJ600 is said to be capable of carrying several missiles. India has also not been left out of the Global UAV push. The Indian Air Force and Army operate Israeli Searcher I and II tactical UAVs and Heron (MALE) UAVs. India has also developed a smaller UAV, the Nishant which is likely to enter service soon.
In addition, India is undertaking a development program for a UAV in the Heron / Predator class of MALE UAVs, called the ‘Rustom’. The Rustom will be 1100 – 1300 Kg UAV, with a maximum altitude of 35000 feet and range of 300 Km. The state run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) along with Bharat Electronics are slated to design and build this UAV. Although large sized UAVs have been procured by the armed forces there has been no movement on the Micro and Mini UAVs including ‘manpacks’, which are an essential requirement for the tactical battle area and CI/CT operations. Request for Proposals (RFPs) in this regard are stated to have been floated for this class of UAVs by both army and air force. On the indigenous front, IdeaForge Technology Private Limited in collaboration with DRDO has developed a man portable UAV called ‘Netra’ which is currently under field usable trials. Netra is a autonomous hovering UAV ideal for short range over the hill missions.
UAVs in Civil Market
During the last 30 years, UAV systems have evolved into highly capable machines used by the armed forces worldwide, mostly for surveillance and data acquisition purposes. The demand for these products in the commercial industry arises from the low manufacturing and operating cost of the system and the flexibility of these aircraft to adjust to the particular needs of the consumer.
But despite this, the full potential of the UAVs has not been exploited in the civil market. It is a fact that today the civil UAV market is responsible for only three per cent of the total market revenue. In this also North America and Europe are by far the largest markets for civil UAV applications. Basically, the problem revolves around the airworthiness and certification issues for UAVs in the civil market. Operating within the controlled airspace of a country invites more stringent checks on safety and reliability issues. No such problem exists for UAVs operated by armed forces of respective countries. This issue is under active consideration and debate in the civil UAV industry worldwide.
Notwithstanding the above, there are a number of applications for UAVs in the civil industry/market. Potential uses of UAVs in the industry are as under:
• Border Patrolling
• Disaster Management and search and rescue missions involving ship wrecks, aircraft accidents, earthquakes, floods etc by providing real time information.
• Law enforcement – especially with regard to vertical takeoff and landing UAVs, which can take on the role of police helicopters in a more cost effective way.
• Communication relay – HALE UAVs can be an alternative to satellites orbiting around the earth transmitting data related to telecommunications, television and internet.
• Scientific research of any nature related to environment, atmosphere and archaeological issues.
• Industrial application in terms of crop spraying, nuclear plant surveillance, oil pipe surveillance etc.
• Hazardous missions like volcanic patrolling, surveillance of hazardous chemicals, nuclear reactors etc.
The increasing demand and reliance on UAVs in war fighting and peace keeping operations has doubled the pace of UAV related research and development in recent years. UAVs with enhanced capabilities today are able to play a greater role in critical missions. Achieving information superiority, minimizing collateral damage, fighting effectively in urban area against widely dispersed forces and striking autonomously and precisely are areas where UAVs will be increasingly indispensable. The three major thrusts in UAV development are:
a) Growth in size of strategic UAV for better endurance and payload.
b) Reduction in size of tactical UAVs.
c) Weaponization of UAVs to offer lethal capability in combat missions.
d) Autonomy, commonly defined as the ability of the machine to take decisions without human intervention.
Armed forces worldwide are beginning to explore the possibilities offered by Unmanned systems as both sensor and weapon platforms. The promise of an autonomous, highly survivable and absolutely fearless UAV will usher in a new paradigm in which the ultimate consideration is no longer the value of pilots lives but rather the mission and cost effectiveness of UAVs.
The advent of light airborne precision weapons, autonomous target acquisition and recognition technologies will push UAVs towards becoming armed and lethal unmanned platforms. UAVs with the ability to pick out targets in attack autonomously with persistent presence over areas of interest will come of age in the near future and become indispensable weapons of war for commanders.
The continued development of strategic and tactical UAVs follows the line of employing UAVs as multi-role, multi-mission platforms. UAVs will see progressive developments towards both extreme ends of the size spectrum. Strategic UAVs will see a growth in size for better endurance, reliability and payload capacity. Mini and micro UAVs will grow smaller, lighter and more expendable. The tactical close range platforms will become more versatile with multi-role, multi-mission capability. Passive and low signature sensors are essential in boosting the stealth and survivability of UAVs. Note worthy advances include Hyper-Spectral imaging, Laser radar, synthetic aperture radar and moving target indicator.
Increasing demand for 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.
It must be appreciated that for strategic high value UAVs to perform as well as manned systems, acquisition costs will be higher. The development of larger size UAVs (fixed wing and rotary) in the cargo carriage role is already underway with the lead being taken US companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Some of these systems like Lockheed Martin’s unmanned K-MAX helicopter have successfully completed trials and are being fielded in Afghanistan to augment Marine Corps ground and air logistics operations.
The debate on manned vs unmanned aircraft and whether the days of manned combat aircraft are numbered has been going on for some time. The UAV is an innovative weapon system but it not yet capable of replacing manned aircraft; the main drawback being its 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 manned aircraft and UAVs/Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAVs) in complementary roles.
(The writer is a former ADG, Army Aviation Corps)