UAVs and mini UAVs are the emerging challenge for airspace management
Capt. Akash Kumar Singh
The Indian Air Force (IAF) plays a vital role in Air Space Management and in safety of not only military aviation but also of civil aviation assets. Complexities in managing the airspace during peacetime are compounded even more when it comes to the conduct of air operations at the time of war and especially in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA).
The vast technological improvements, coupled with the high cost of state-of-the-art aircraft and requirement of well-trained pilots, has led to the development of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). Till a few years back, UAVs were typically viewed as low-risk low-cost experimental tools but in today’s battlefield milieu they have found a wide array of uses. Aviation related tasks are now becoming seemingly possible with minimal or without human intervention. UAVs are thus being viewed with increased interest to perform a variety of new ‘dull-dirty-dangerous’ missions ranging from reconnaissance, atmosphere monitoring to targeting. The versatility, small size and low cost of UAVs have resulted in their large-scale proliferation not only amongst organised military forces but also amongst non-state actors, adding not only to the variety but also to the numbers of airspace users and further compounding the already complex issue of Air Space Management both during war and peace.
With above-mentioned challenges in Air Space Management as the backdrop, in this piece it is intended to analyse the growth of UAVs, their impact on Air Space Management during war and peace and attempt to demystify and de-conflict this quintessential issue of not only war fighting but also of safe and secure exploitation of the airspace during peace.
The UAV Challenge
In the 21st century, the trend towards the proliferation of unmanned threat is most ominous. Since UAVs are comparatively inexpensive, easily procured or manufactured and extremely versatile, they have emerged as a new multifaceted threat. Their small size, low radar cross-section and ability to fly low and slow make them difficult to detect and track. It is these physical/ electronic characteristics coupled with their large-scale proliferation and innovative employment not only by organised defence forces but also by non-state actors that have presented some very complex challenges for Air Space Management.
Air Space Management: Detection of UAVs by radars or visual/ acoustic means is extremely difficult, especially at longer ranges. Also, due to absence of sensors which can monitor instantaneous position of the UAVs, it is difficult for Air Space Management professionals to know of this change, unless intimated by the Ground Control Station. They pose an omnipresent threat with an all-weather capability and requirement of negligible ground support infrastructure as compared to their manned counterparts. Also, their ability to appear anywhere and anytime is a serious concern for Air Space Management not only from security point of view but also for flight safety of own air assets.
Unlike manned aircraft, UAV pilot is blind to the real-time operation unfolding around the UAV and hence is not able to avoid a mid-air incident/ accident with friendly aerial vehicles. Commands to the UAV from the ground control station and feedback from the UAV is communicated via either line of sight or satellite communication, which is susceptible to disruption due to transmission, weather or enemy action. There has been a significant lack of coordination between the three Services regarding employment philosophy and methodology of Air Space Management with respect to UAV.
However, this is likely to be further accentuated in the future with the induction of UAVs at battalion or lower levels. Increasing proliferation of UAVs not only amongst defence forces but also with government and private agencies and non-state actors have amplified the convolutions of Air Space Management.
Existing Methodology: Broadly, the existing Air Space Management methodology for UAVs is a subset of the overall methodology being followed for manned aircraft. However, availability of UAVs up to the Corps level involves certain modifications/ safeguards to be put in place to avoid fratricide or any other air incident/ accident. Procedure for demand and planning of UAV missions presently being followed is as given under:
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