Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) began as desirable supplements to military inventories, but these have grown rapidly in technological sophistication to become essential complements of the war-making machinery. More than a hundred militaries across the globe currently hold and operate UAVs and some more are eyeing them yearningly. Quite swiftly, their size has grown upwards to airframes that are larger than those of combat aircraft and downwards to barely visible micro-UAVs. So has the versatility in their employment.
In September 2019, Abqaiq and Khurais, two major Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities were attacked with 18 UAVs and seven cruise missiles leading to around half of Saudi oil production getting affected and a sudden hike in oil prices internationally. In January 2020, Iranian military leader Qasem Soleiman, a Major General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was assassinated with a military MQ-9 Reaper UAV specially authorised by Donald Trump, the then President of the United States of America. During the first half of 2020, Turkish drones proved their worth in Syria and Libya. In the latter part of the year, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, witnessed the effective use of UAVs. More recently, the ongoing Ukraine war is seeing the proliferate use of UAVs by both sides.
An emerging development is the use of a large number of UAVs in orchestrated operations as “drone swarms”. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly adding potency to UAVs at an impressive pace. Whether in kinetic operations in war or counter terrorism operations in areas away from any military conflict zones, UAVs have demonstrated successes that have established these as significant instruments of war as also consequential factors impinging on air power, strategy and doctrine. This is especially so with weaponising endeavours in respect of UAVs to upgrade these to Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). For the purpose of this article, the term UAVs subsumes UCAVs. This article looks at why the Indian Air Force (IAF) needs UAVs, the status of its current inventory and the way forward.
What Makes UAVs Needed
UAVs inherently hold numerous advantages over manned aircraft – the most important one being that there is no human being onboard which makes these vehicles considerably more suitable for the dull (monotonous, tedious Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance duties), dirty (involving operating in NBC type hazardous environment) and dangerous (fraught with very high degree of risk to the platform) categories of tasks. No human casualty enters the risk assessment of UAV deployment while the absence of a human onboard permits the design to be maximised for very high performance unconstrained by physiological limitations, especially the ‘g’ forces that manoeuvering in three dimensions involves. The need for life support systems such as air conditioning and personal Oxygen systems, cockpit escape systems and transparent canopies is obviated. The small size, modest weight, low Radar Cross Section (RCS), low acoustic signals and high altitude envelopes are other operational benefits of UAVs. Crash survivability features are far less rigorous as they need to cater only to onboard systems and not to comparatively delicate humans. In fact, there is no need for a cockpit rendering the airframe design more stealthy and agile.
All these eliminated features offer a favourable trade-off in terms of additional payload by way of fuel/batteries, communications, cameras, sensors or weapons systems. The absence of a human onboard also means the design can look at protracted endurance as fatigue, body ablutions, sleep and rest requirements, short and long term consequences of sitting for too long in one posture, do not restrain the duration of missions. The cost factor is another persuasive argument in favour of UAVs as it is considerably lower than comparable manned aircraft. An operational benefit accruing from the lower cost is that their loss can be risked more incautiously and hull losses accepted more casually. Indeed, the terms ‘attritable’ and ‘disposable’ are increasingly being used in the context of UAVs.
UAVs can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance of enemy activity, target designation and monitoring, strikes, suppression and destruction of land target systems, monitoring of Nuclear, Biological, Chemical (NBC) contamination, electronic intelligence gathering, location and destruction of land mines and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). The loitering munition design UAV can linger around in an area and at the touch of a switch, can be used as a munition or be recalled.
In the maritime context, UAVs can shadow enemy fleet, serve as decoy missiles by the emission of artificial signatures, gathering electronic intelligence, relaying radio signals, protection of ports from offshore attack, placement and monitoring of sonar buoys and possibly other forms of anti-submarine warfare. Deck operations are simpler than for manned aircraft and have been validated.
Roles for UAVs in aerial battles can be long-range, high-altitude surveillance, radar system jamming and destruction, electronic intelligence, airfield base security, airfield damage assessment, elimination of unexploded bombs, decoys for deception against enemy Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and more spectacularly, as unmanned wingmen to combat fighter aircraft. UAVs can gather vital intelligence information about targets and soften them before an attack. Electronic warfare suites give them the capability to take on cyber warfare roles as extensions of contending forces by reaching out deep into enemy land or maritime territory.
As can be seen, of the five domains of warfare i.e. land, sea, air, cyberspace and space, UAVs are already present tangibly in the first four while in space they have an arguable presence as satellites are unmanned, are increasingly being weaponised and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) systems are already in an experimental stage.
Besides being kinetic instruments of war, UAVs render traditional build up to a war unnecessary and can be used even when no war has been declared, as witnessed in recent years. There is an element of de-humanising their use as their remote control removes the operator from the target physically and mentally. There is also an evolving trend of targeted killing which can be loosely defined as assassination by use of lethal force with the premeditated intent of killing individually selected persons not in the physical custody of the entity targeting them. Besides the immediate tactical goal of killing military or political leaders, the use of UAVs for targeted killings also serves the strategic objective of deterrence by way of conveying the intent and capability of the UAV threat.
As can be seen from the above, UAVs are being used in every role including offensive ones that manned aircraft are and, in addition, some more such as targeted killings. Their low cost makes them attractive handmaidens of war. Let us take a peek at the IAF’s experience with UAVs.
The IAF’s Unmanned Muscle
The first UAV the IAF acquired was the Chukar manufactured by the US, but in a very tentative manner and in small numbers. The need for UAVs was felt in earnest by the IAF only after the Kargil War in 1999 as operations by fixed wing aircraft and helicopters were constrained severely by the terrain. The inhuman treatment meted out to pilots downed over Pakistani territory, also served as an additional impetus.
Soon thereafter, in November 2000, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher Mk 1 was inducted into the IAF’s first UAV Squadron. Israel, ever ready to enter into defence industrial relations with the Indian government and Indian business entities, later supplied Searcher Mk II, equipped with standard day/night surveillance turrets. According to unconfirmed reports, there are five squadrons and a Tech Flight. However, the UAV holding of the IAF is a closely guarded secret and can only be surmised to be a little over 100 as open sources give the total number of UAVs held by the Indian military to be around 200.
The IAI’s Heron 1, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV, was inducted by the IAF in 2003. Designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance and surveillance, Israel offered it to India more for the validation and trial phase of the UAV. India was thus the first user of Heron 1. The Israeli Air Force and Turkish Defence Forces followed and deployed it for high altitude land surveillance and maritime patrol missions. Indian Heron 1s are reportedly configured with an Elta Systems radar and a stabilised Tamam surveillance and targeting turret. The Heron 1 has demonstrated flight operations of up to 52 hours duration at up to 35,000ft, but typically flies 40 hours at an altitude of 30,000ft with a range of 3,000km and a 250kg payload which could be electro-optical and thermal surveillance equipment, SAR radars for ground surveillance, maritime patrol radars and sensors, signals and other intelligence collection antennas and equipment, laser designators, and even radio relays.
The IAF was expected to replace all its Searcher I and II UAVs with the Heron 1, but that did not happen and the Searcher II UAVs continue to be in service. Initially, 12 Heron 1s were procured and in 2005, another 50 were ordered of which one reportedly crashed in 2017. The IAF also operates the DRDO Lakshya which serves as realistic towed aerial sub-targets for live fire training.
The IAF had been seeking Heron TP UAV since 2012. Its procurement was approved in 2015, with reports emerging in mid-2016 that entry into service with the IAF was imminent but the acquisition process remained in animated suspension until India finalised a deal for four Heron-TP variant for surveillance and reconnaissance missions but for the Indian Army and not the IAF. The stand-off with China was the cause of the change. The Heron TP is larger than the Heron 1, with a bigger 1,200hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turbo-prop to power it. The typical mission payload rises to 1,000kg, which can be carried up to 45,000feet and the UAV has a maximum flight time of over 36 hours in favourable conditions. Project Cheetah, first initiated by the IAF in 2013, is a Rs 5,000-crore long-pending Heron upgrade programme which is expected to arm the Heron 1 and Heron TP with laser guided bombs, air-to-ground and air-launched, anti-tank guided missiles. The status of the Project is yet uncertain.
In 2009, the IAF purchased ten Harops from IAI under a $100-million contract. The Harop is a Loitering Munition (LM) system developed in Israel by the MBT missiles division of IAI. This UCAV is also known as the Harpy-2 Loitering Munitions missile. It loiters over the battlefield and attacks targets by crashing into them. The Harop UCAV has been developed from the Harpy UAV, also developed by the IAI. It was unveiled in India at the 2009 Aero India Airshow.
India has been working on the purchase of 30 MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian drones. The SeaGuardian is the maritime version of which ten were to be procured for the Indian Navy which already has two on lease, while the Indian Army and the IAF were to get ten each of the SkyGuardian version. Both are High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Remotely Piloted Vehicles variety of surveillance system capable of 27-hour vigils at 50,000 feet altitude. It is common, but not accurate to see this UAV being referred to as the Predator. In fact, the MQ-1 was the Predator while the MQ-9A was designated Reaper by US Air Force (USAF), but more widely referred to as Predator B. The MQ-9B SkyGuardian/SeaGuardian is a variant of Predator B. Addition of 10 MQ-9 SkyGuardians to the IAF’s inventory would have been a significant attainment; but recent reports indicate that the deal has been put on hold, a victim of the Atmanirbhar and ‘Make-in-India’ sloganeering. As a result, the IAF will get neither the SkyGuardian nor any Atmanirbhar UAV as indigenous capability is woefully inadequate.
Indigenous Options for the IAF
Indigenous development of UAVs started in the 1990s, with the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) being directed to produce India’s first Nishant UAV based on the Indian Army’s requirement for an intelligence gathering platform over enemy territory. The Nishant first flew in 1995. However, four Nishants were quickly lost in accidents and the military lost interest in the craft. Starting 2003, DRDO then developed a MALE UAV Rustom-I, the design based on Rutan Long-EZ Homebuilt aircraft developed by US-based Rutan Aircraft Factory. The Rustom-I was supposed to be a Technology Demonstrator platform for more advanced and more capable UAVs. The Rustom-I had its first flight in 2009, but the project did not generate much interest with the IAF due to the slow pace of development and an inadequate sensor package. The Rustom-I is unlikely to ever be a full-scale production UAV. Rustom-II is still being tested and has many shortcomings.
Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance or TAPAS (BH-201), earlier known as Rustom-II, made its first flight in 2016, but had major technical problems. It is touted as India’s first indigenous UCAV with a range of 1,000km and a payload of 350kg but all indications are that it will take a long time to be operationally available to the IAF, especially as the project appears to be under Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) whose internal inefficiencies are notorious. In 2014, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had unveiled Panchi, a wheeled version of the Nishant, but its future is as yet uncertain.
Some smaller UAV projects initiated by the DRDO which have had some success are Pilot-less Target Drones such as Abhyas, Netra and Lakshay which the IAF operates in small numbers but there still has not been a significant, successful major UAV programme. India also has initiated studies and research to develop an autonomous UCAV called ‘Aura’ which the DRDO describes as long-range, self-defending, high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon carrying capabilities. ‘Aura’ is expected to have stealth properties to make it undetectable by radar and thus suitable for cross border strikes. A recent, much-publicised event was the maiden flight of the Autonomous Flying Wing Demonstrator on July 01 this year. Shorn of all the hype, the demonstration was modest. The “autonomous” part of it was a pre-determined navigational route, the “indigenous” part of flying wing configuration is not a leading edge technology, the avionics involved are existing levels and whether truly autonomous operations will someday be a part of its design is not clear. In any case, one is wary of any projections by DRDO about its projects. Reports indicated that the demonstrated platform may be a step towards consummating Aura project. In short, the DRDO has had some success with small UAVs but projects worthy of the IAF’s needs appear to be very distant in the future. Meanwhile, the need to shore up its doleful UAV inventory is a red flag.
Indigenous UAVs are not of much use to the IAF nor are they likely to be in the near future. The fact that the fourth largest Air Force in the world is constrained to import UAVs is embarrassing while the push for Atmanirbhar and Make-in-India tending to smother even the imports is alarming. The Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), HAL and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) are the main public sector entities that have been working in collaboration with IAI, ideaForge and Edall Systems to develop and produce UAVs. Regrettably, the slow speed at which ‘Make- in-India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar’ are making inroads into defence and aerospace sectors, has meant that inefficient and low productivity public sector enterprises have retained their hold and shackled the two sectors.
Recent forays into the UAV domain by private Indian entities appear to be encouraging; the most significant being the setting up of Adani Elbit UAV manufacturing facility in Hyderabad. This is a JV between Adani Defence and Aerospace, part of Adani group and Israel-based Elbit Systems. It is the first private UAV manufacturing unit in India and the first one outside Israel to manufacture an Israeli UAV, namely, the Hermes 900 MALE and later, the Hermes 450. Adani Defence and Aerospace has also involved in the project Comprotech, AutoTEC, Alpha Tocol and Alpha Design Technologies in which Adani Group has picked up substantial stake. Reliance Defence and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) are also entering the UAV arena and the future looks promising. However, it will be at least a decade before tangible results in terms of UAVs of real operational use to the IAF become available from the private sector.
The US and Israel, the leading edge manufacturers of unmanned systems, should be persuaded to partner with Indian private sector entities for the development of indigenous unmanned systems. Of course, there would be resistance from the well entrenched but grossly incompetent public sector and that is where the government has to show resolve, if India has to move forward in this arena.
Since 2000, the use of UAVs by the IAF has had a major limitation as it has been largely confined to Line of Sight data linkage, minimally supported by ground-based, relay link stations supplied by IAI. This limitation did not exist for National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) which had satellite communication equipment to support its operations. With the launch of the IAF’s dedicated communications GSAT-7A satellite in December 2018, UAV deployment and productivity became enhanced significantly as has the IAF’s capability to contribute to network-centric warfare. The satellite costs only $85 million but the value addition to the IAF’s UAV utilisation is immeasurable as it will greatly improve the capability to receive real-time data from UAVs.
The IAF has been mooting a separate, role-specific cadre for its UAV force so that professionals are recruited for this niche specialty, much like pilots for the other streams. The proposal was initiated by the Training Command of the IAF in 2012, but may fall victim to theatrisation plan wherein a unified UAV command may subsume single service UAV holdings.
The steadily increasing role that drones are playing in warfare of all hues is self-evident, and there is a need for importance to be given to arming the IAF with UAVs/UCAVs in larger numbers and with greater potency. However, given the fact that the IAF is wrestling with its combat aircraft strength which is down to 31 squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42, the pathetically inadequate capital allocation to the IAF in the last budget, the prospects of a substantial boost to the IAF’s UAV capability appear grim. Possibly, the low budgetary allocation could be countered through leasing which is now permitted by the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020. The need for the IAF to buy or lease UAVs immediately is critical and cannot be deferred nor held hostage to Atmanirbhar and Make-in-India programmes.
Indian Defence Review, Issue Vol. 37.3, Jul-Sep 2022