UAVs are becoming an organic necessity for all modern armies
Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
The revolution in unmanned warfare has been a long time coming. In the past decade, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have progressed from being minor players in the Intelligence and Situational Awareness (ISA) role to being a key part 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 providing 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 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and combat during Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom. Some of these UAVs/UCAVs were being piloted for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from halfway across the globe in Nevada and California, more than 8,000 miles from the killing zone, providing real time video feeds to troops on ground. However, the vast majority of roughly 1,500 UAVs flying in Iraq and Afghanistan were much smaller, controlled by soldiers and marines on the ground like the ‘Raven’ – an essential component of ISR. 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 US shave 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.
Information is an element of combat power and a combat multiplier in the hands of a commander. 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. The answer lies in the use of UAVs, with their inherent characteristics to provide the flexibility to operate in the extended battlespace, thereby enabling the ground forces to see first, understand first, act first and finish decisively. Most importantly, UAVs are not impeded by restraints imposed on manned systems where both the aircraft and crew could be lost – they are increasingly being employed for missions that were hitherto the domain of manned aircraft. The concept of killer/hunter UAVs for strike missions is a reality in Afghanistan. The Predator, carrying two ‘hellfire’ missiles has been extensively used by the US forces for strike missions against the Taliban and al Qaida militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Current military UAVs perform reconnaissance as well as attack missions. Though ISR 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. The combination of loiter time and layered employment of UAVs provide the critical capability needed to support network centric operations. It is difficult to imagine how any future operation would be conducted without commanders both in the front line and rear having their situational awareness enhanced 24/7 by near real time video feeds.
Sub-conventional Operations UAVs are providing exclusive capabilities for forces engaged in the global war on terrorism. The counter insurgency/counter terrorist (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. In our context, the UAVs are being extensively used by security forces in Naxalite infested areas and in CI operations in Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast in the ISR role.
Developments in India
Successful use of UAVs and their combat enhancing potential has generated the interest of militaries across the world. China and Pakistan are adding UAVs of various 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 – these are also being used by Iraq in the Middle East. India has not been left out of the global UAV push, with a major thrust of its armed forces modernisation 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 35,000 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 Rustom2 the combat version. With ‘Make in India’ thrust, the Rustom development will be done by an outside agency including the private sector – L&T, Tatas and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited-Bharat Electronics Ltd (HAL-BEL) combine are contenders for this project. However, India’s most prized indigenous drone programme 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 Defence Research and Development Organisation (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 after burner and will feature flying wing design similar to the US ‘B-2 Spirit’, a stealth bomber. As per the DRDO the project is currently awaiting government approval and this futuristic project is likely to 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. There is a large projected requirement of this class of UAVs by the Indian military in the coming decade; in fact, the army is looking to equip its Infantry battalions with these UAVs. Presently, a limited number of mini/micro UAVs have been procured by the army’s Operational Commands to meet the inescapable operational requirements under the special powers provision of the respective Army Commanders – Tata Advanced Systems and Taneja Aerospace are said to be involved in these projects. 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 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 Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast. These could weigh as less as 2 kg and have an endurance of 30 minutes at a stretch. 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. It is heartening to learn that a number of start-ups like Axiom Research Labs based in Bengaluru, RAN India located in Delhi/NCR, Throttle Aerospace Systems in Bengaluru and many others have entered the market for participating in this segment of UAV development under the ‘Make in India’ programme.
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. 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, 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 the mission and cost effectiveness of UAVs.
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 size spectrum. 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 multi-role 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 payload 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. Also, 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 un-crewed 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. The 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) programme 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 ISR 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.