India has realised the importance of drones to combat the threat it faces on its borders

Smruti D

At the Cariappa Parade Ground on January 15, the audience was set to experience a novel event. On the left and right sides of the ground stood tangos for mock operations that were about to take place. At the parade, apart from the usual display of land and air equipment, the Indian Army displayed swarm-drone operations consisting of 75 drones.

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Like birds in the sky, these unmanned, indigenous platforms came flying low. The mother drones headed towards the targets, gradually releasing child drones consisting of destructive capabilities. One by one, these drones released fire and carried out the simulated ‘kamikaze’ or suicide operations, destroying enemy targets which included mock-ups of fuel depots, terror hideout, enemy tanks and radar positions, with the help of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Apart from these simulated offensive ops, the drones also carried out close-support missions, delivering logistics and medical aid. As India faces border tensions on its western as well as northern borders, it becomes imperative for the Indian defence establishment to induct advanced technology that would support future warfare.

Recently, while speaking at a webinar, the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. M.M. Naravane, highlighted the importance disruptive technology in today’s day and age. Talking about how new-age strike capabilities can suppress an enemy’s air defence, he said, “It is also no longer necessary to score a physical hit to destroy a target. Offensive capabilities in the digital domain can effectively neutralise satellites and networks, denying them at critical juncture to decisively alter the course of the conflict,” he said. He further added that large platforms, which were once the mainstay of the 20th century battlefield, such as the main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and large surface combatants, have been rendered relatively less significant in the face of emerging battlefield challenges in newer domains. He stressed on how the Indian Army had been steadily inducting niche capabilities to enhance combat proficiencies in Multi-Domain Operations.

The term SWARM stands for ‘Stabilised Weapon And Reconnaissance Mount’. The Indian Army looks to procure more such drones in the coming time. The drones that were demonstrated at the parade were indigenously developed by the army in collaboration with a Bangalore-based start-up NewSpace Research and Technologies. The army, in the coming times looks to further increase the number by 1000. During the demonstration, the swarm consisted of different types of drones. As an article in Forbes magazine put it, “In the demonstration, scout drones investigated the targets, then mothership drones released explosive-laden kamikaze units which carried out the attacks.” The Indian Army, the article stated, used different types of drones, including a quadcopter, six-rotor mothership drone and small quadcopters with explosives. The army has also signed a contract worth Rs 140 crores for undisclosed quantities of high-altitude variant of SWITCH UAV from a start-up called ideaForge.

Defence establishments around the world are making a choice of moving towards unmanned platforms. The shift from manned to unmanned becomes necessary with the change in the nature of warfare. Today, even as the demand for manned machines remains intact, the demand for unmanned systems has gone up. Major economies have made huge investments in the development and manufacture of these systems.

As per the data put out by Fortune Business Insights, the global military drone market size that was USD10.53 billion in 2019 and is set to reach USD23.78 billion in 2027. As unmanned systems get global traction, number of start-ups as well as multi-billion dollar companies are involved in the development and production of these systems. The report by Fortune Business Insights names well-known global companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Elbit Systems Ltd and Thales Group among others that are pursuing the production of these systems. In India, apart from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), number of start-ups have mushroomed that develop and manufacture unmanned technologies.

For India, the inclusion of drones is necessary in view of challenges it faces on both its northern as well as western borders. As a major military power, China is known to have formidable drone technology and is one of the few nations to have invested huge resources in its development. When it comes to drones, a paper published by University of Pennsylvania and Texas A&M University revealed that of the 18 countries that acquired armed drones between 2011-2019, bought drones from China. Prior to 2011, only the US, the UK and Israel possessed armed drones. In 2011, China began approaching countries such as Pakistan and United Arab Emirates (UAE) for its drone market. On its border with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) have complained of drones, coming from the neighbour and airdropping weapons.

The attention given to swarm drones gained momentum after an incident caught the entire world’s attention. In November 2020, Armenia accepted defeat after it went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh region with its neighbour, Azerbaijan. The war lasted six weeks until Russian President Vladimir Putin brokered a ceasefire. The war was won by Azerbaijan after they used armed drones supplied by Turkey to cut through Armenian defences and claimed territories that included 40 per cent of Nagorno-Karabakh region. This victory came to be seen as one of a kind as these drones managed to eliminate air defences and ground assets. The ‘deadliest’ drone that Azerbaijan fielded during the conflict was the Bayraktar Tb-2 drone of Turkish origin. The victory came to be spoken of greatly because this was the first war that was won by drones, an emerging asset for defence. Azerbaijan also used Israeli kamikaze drones such as Harop, Orbiter and SkyStriker UAV.

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