India needs to invest much more in autonomous and unmanned technologies
Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
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, thereby changing the very character of modern war. Today, UAVs are also providing exclusive capability to forces engaged in sub conventional operations, especially in the global war on terrorism.
Current technologies make UAVs more sophisticated than ever and are expanding their role in military operations. Conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen as well as areas of geopolitical conflict like Persian Gulf and East China Sea are seeing an increased use of UAVs of varying size and sophistication.
Since 2013 China has conducted periodic UAV patrols over the disputed Senkaku/ Daioyu Islands which are also claimed by Japan and Taiwan. Similarly, Iran has established at least four UAV bases bordering the Persian Gulf, and conducts regular over flights to monitor the US Naval traffic moving through the Gulf. The downing of a US Global Hawk by Iran in the Gulf of Oman in June this year and the subsequent downing of an Iranian UAV in July by the US in the Persian Gulf are clear indicators to the increasing UAV military activity worldwide.
Closer home in December 2017 an Indian Heron UAV crashed inside China on the Doklam Plateau where India and China were engaged in a military standoff over disputed territorial claims. The latest is the dropping of weapons like AK-47 rifles and grenades in the border areas of Punjab through drones by Pakistan state actors in September this year for use by terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir — the entire episode came to light when two small drones were recovered by the security forces in Punjab.
With increasing range, altitude and loiter time, UAVs now provide 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. Today, technologically advanced militaries across the world have incorporated UAVs as a new critical and combat enhancing component of their inventory.
While Israel and USA have been the pioneers in UAV development and employment, at least 24 other countries are currently developing new military unmanned aircraft for all types of ISR missions including combat — presently China appears to have the most active ongoing UAV development programs. As per data available the militaries of 95 countries have an active inventory of UAVs, with the number of countries operating UAVs increasing by an estimated 58 per cent in the last decade itself – some of these countries are believed to have licensed foreign technology for domestic production. The Israeli armed forces believe that the UAV is the future war horse and the country with the best drone technology would be the winner in a future war.
Concept of Employment
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 – 24/7.
The answer lies in the use of UAVs, with their inherent characteristics to provide the flexibility to operate in the extended battle space, 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 and is effectively being played out in conflicts today.
Current military UAVs perform reconnaissance as well as attack missions. Though ISR missions still remain the predominant role, 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 provides 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.
India and Neighbours
Successful use of UAVs and their combat enhancing potential has generated the interest of militaries across the world. In the recent years China has unveiled a variety of UAVs with enhanced capabilities, including armed versions some of which have parallels to foreign equivalents. Majority of the units are equipped with the Caihong (CH3, CH4 & CH5) and Wing Loong (Wing Loong 1&2) types of UAVs in the MALE category and the WZ-7 also known as the ‘Soaring Dragon’ in the HALE category. The WZ-7 is known to have been deployed in Tibet and in South China Sea. What is of interest and concern is the display of two highly technologically advanced UAVs during the National Day Parade this year, the GJ-II and the WZ-8 for the first time by China.
While the GJ-II is stated to be a stealth UCAV with long range strike capability, the WZ-8 is a supersonic reconnaissance UAV. It will also be worthwhile to note that China today stands as the third largest exporter of UAVs after the US and Israel — Pakistan is a major beneficiary of these exports from China. Pakistan, unlike India, holds and operates many indigenously developed UAVs, prominent among them being the Uquaab, Jasoos, Vector and the Burraq UCAV. The Burraq has been extensively used for conducting operations in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) against terrorists; this is most likely the Chinese Caihong (CH3/CH4) UCAV assembled/ manufactured in Pakistan. What is of concern is the reported proposed sale of 48 Chinese Wing Loong 2 high-end armed drones to Pakistan by China — some reports have also hinted at a joint venture to manufacture in Pakistan.
India has been the largest importer of UAVs over the last 30 years. Though slow off the block India, however, 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 armed Harop self-destruct UAVs. India is already in the process of acquiring 10 Heron TP UAVs from Israel, an upgraded and armed version of Heron. This was facilitated after India became a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
As per latest reports India is closely working with the US through the 2+2 dialogue for acquiring the Predator B attack drones including its naval version the ‘Sea Guardian’ through the direct foreign military sales route. While negotiations are on-going, reports also indicate that the government may be looking only at the navy’s requirement of 10 Sea Guardians at present due to high cost factors.
The progress and development on the indigenous front have been a mixed bag. While Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO’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 1100-1300Kg UAV, with a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet and 300km range. It has three versions, the Rustom1 being the tactical UAV, the Rustom H to replace the Heron in the long run and the Rustom-2 the combat version.
The Rustom-2 has been re-designated as ‘Tapas 201’ and is similar to the American Predator with capability of reconnaissance, combat and support missions. Presently, undergoing developmental tests it will provide capability enhancement to the military once inducted into service.
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 DRDO has embarked on the development of Ghatak, which will be 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 DRDO the project is futuristic and is likely to take a decade to fructify.
Although large-sized UAVs have been procured by the armed forces, there has been very little movement on the micro and mini UAVs including man-pack, which are essential for the tactical battle area and CI/CT operation. 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. However, in a major development in September 2018, the Bangalore based Cyient Solutions & Systems Pvt Ltd (CSS) in a joint venture with Israeli Blue Bird Aero Systems received the first order from the army for its SpyLite mini UAVs after having undergone extensive trials in high altitude terrain. SpyLite is an advanced, combat proven, electric mini unmanned aerial system and is optimised to offer covert extended range real time visual intelligence inputs.
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 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 Bangalore, RAN India located in Delhi/NCR, Throttle Aerospace Systems in Bangalore 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 peacekeeping 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, autonomy – commonly defined as ability of the machine to take decisions without human intervention and swarm technology. 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 pilot’s 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.
The development of larger size UAVs (fixed wing and rotary) in the cargo carriage role is already underway, with the lead being taken by the US companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Some of these systems like Lockheed Martins 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.
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 Reconnaissance System) programme of DARPA is one such project. The DRDO is also scouting for partners for developing a solar powered HALE-UAV.
Drone Swarm Technology
The ability of a group of very large number of micro/ mini Drones/ UAVs to autonomously make decisions based on shared information has the potential to revolutionise the dynamics of conflict, with the world inching ever closer to seeing this potential unleashed. Swarming technology is likely to introduce changes in structure of drones by installing mission payloads on multiple mini drones.
The US, UK and more recently China have successfully tested this technology, with China demonstrating a swarm of 1000 drones at the Guangzhou air show during the Lantern Festival in 2018 setting a new Guinness World Record. The US has an entire research programme dedicated to the development of autonomous swarms called ‘Low Cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Swarming Technology’ (LOCUST).
In fact, swarms will have significant military applications in almost all areas of national security. These include ISR missions over air, land and sea, identification and destruction of hostile surface to air missiles and other air defences, act as anti-drone weapon systems, detection of nuclear, biological and chemical radiations when equipped with suitable equipment, etc — a single swarm can be used for multiple purposes and is a far cheaper option than conventional, larger weapon systems.
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.
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. The Indian military along with the industry, both public and private, needs to work on these technologies or else risk preparing to fight a 20th century war against a 21st century army.