The word ‘drone’ refers primarily to unmanned aircrafts or ships guided by remote control or onboard computers.
All over the world, drones are synonymous with military aircraft, the kind which recently killed Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force. In the wake of this attack, as well as another on Saudi Arabian oil refineries that impacted nearly half of their country’s global crude supply, it is important for India to gear up for future wars of drones
Perhaps the first spectacular use of UAVs was during the Israeli Air Force’s victory against the Syrian Air Force over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1982. Israel used drones alongside manned aircraft as electronic decoys, jammers and for real-time reconnaissance. Drones gradually became an essential part of every modern air force’s inventory. The world’s first known drone strike by a nation occurred in Afghanistan on October 07, 2001. It was a Hellfire-missile attack by a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator.
The term Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) was adopted by the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the United States Federal Aviation Administration (USFAA) in 2005. This term emphasises the importance of elements other than the aircraft. It includes elements such as ground control stations, data links and other support equipment. Many similar terms are in use like unmanned-aerial vehicle system (UAVS), remotely piloted aerial vehicle (RPAV) or remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS).
Present military use
According to C4I expert Milind Kulshrestha, “With their unprecedented reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to trace a target or area for hours, the drone is the favourite word with all militaries.”
These come with the capability of engaging with air to surface (land/water) or air to air targets too, and with high optical day and night vision sensors, they have an advanced navigation/control feature. UAS are today used by more than 60 countries, with a few making their own. USA is the leader with nearly 10,000 operational military systems which is more than the combined strength of the rest of the world. UAS have already outnumbered the manned aircraft in US Armed Forces.
During theatre level operations in Afghanistan, UAS flew nearly 200,000 hours a year. USA is also the lead manufacturer with Israel a close second. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are world’s leading manufacturers. IAI’s Harpy, Harop, Searcher and Heron are flying the world over in large numbers, including in India
Unmanned aircraft technologies have now matured well beyond just reconnaissance, security, and targeting. UAS are now undertaking all missions including heavy-lift cargo. Solar-powered UAS are already flying. Currently, the solar-powered Airbus Zephyr holds the endurance record for UAVs, with 25 days in the air. Dual-use (optionally manned) aircraft are also flying.
USAF has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely. For long, the Russians have been using unmanned MiG-21s as practice targets. In France, Dassault leads a multi-nation project for delta wing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) system ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000 and UK also has a strategic UAS program called ‘Taranis’. UAS are taking-off and landing by themselves including on the moving aircraft carrier (Northrop Grumman X-47B).
Autonomous air refuelling also has been tested so as to enhance the range and endurance of the unmanned platform. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. United States Air Force’s (USAF) UAS vision document indicates that by the year 2047, every mission would be unmanned.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) enabled drone swarms
Coordinated UAS swarms have been tested by both USA and China. UAV swarming has been possible due recent advances in chip technology and software for robotics, and it has become feasible to design machines exhibiting complex behaviour, achieve mutual coordination and accomplish complex tasks. Aerial robots can ascend or descend synchronously, communicate with each other in mid-air and create cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group manoeuvres are possible.
The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature, e.g., honeybee swarms, flying in coordination, displaying collective intelligence and each executing a small share of the collective task. Very small drones – some weighing less than five pounds – can cause a devastating effect if they are armed with weapons, and flown in a swarm of large numbers.
Drone swarms can be both remotely operated or fly autonomously or may accompany ground vehicles and other aircraft. Even single getting through could be potentially lethal. Terrorists and other militants can also operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons. Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to catch on the radar, and hard to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly in swarms.
UAS have become an attractive and potent military asset for any significant power to ignore. USAF trains more UAS pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. UAS have much lower training costs and can best concentrate on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), close air support and take on some strike missions while air superiority could be handled by manned fighters. Manned aircraft are certainly better in a dynamic environment. US Predators and Reapers were designed for counter-terrorism operations and in war zones in which the enemy lacks sufficient firepower to shoot them down.
Full-fledged air-to-air combat capability increased autonomy and UAS-specific munitions are part of the roadmap. UCAV is now a “first day of the war” force enabler which complements a strike package by performing the Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) mission by pre-emptive destruction of sophisticated integrated air defences of the enemy in advance of the strike package. It operates at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Costs (LCC) of current manned systems.
The unconventional UAS threat
Terrorists, criminals, fanatics, and others find UAVs (especially small drones) versatile, stealthy and cheap airborne weapon. UAVs are also on the shopping lists of drug cartels, human smugglers, and corporate spies. Their prices have dropped to less than that of a TV set. UAS can threaten airspace security through a collision, a deliberate attack or it could also be loaded with dangerous payloads, and crashed into vulnerable targets. Payloads could include explosives, chemical, radiological, biological hazards, or even nuclear payloads.
Decision-makers must take into account the possible use of UAS by terrorists or unfriendly regimes. Ethical concerns and UAS-related accidents have driven nations to regulate the use of UAS. The export of UAS or technology capable of carrying a 500 kg payload to at least 300 km is restricted in many countries by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Most countries have clampdown on all illegal UAS.
The immediate concern for all is a possible low-level drone attack. Many countries are working on high powered lasers to damage UAS and send them out of control. According to an Indian defence expert, when deployed in a defence role, a swarm of weaponised drones can create an impenetrable screen against incoming targets, including a missile.
“With the potency in a combat drone, the military operations are going to witness huge change and the impact of UCAVs shall not only be seen in the conventional warfare but even more so, in asymmetric tactical response to the asymmetric threat of armed militant networks and other non-conventional targets.” India has all the reasons to enhance its UAV and drone inventory for future conflicts with hostile neighbours who are already using this platform to support their ill intentions against India.
India got its first UAV back in 1996 when the Indian Army had acquired an Israeli Searcher Mk-I followed by Indian Air Force and Navy. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), out of the 22.5 per cent of the global UAV imports, India tops the list, as its own market is still at a nascent stage. First used during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, India has extensively used Heron and Searcher drones made by IAI for surveillance and reconnaissance.
India got its first UAV back in 1996 when the Indian Army had acquired an Israeli Searcher Mk-I followed by Indian Air Force and Navy.
Since then, India has procured many Israeli military unmanned aircraft. The IAF has procured Harpy killer drone as well from IAI which is an anti-radiation and homing drone. It can autonomously home in on radio emissions and rather than holding a separate high-explosive warhead, the drone itself is the main munition. These are equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over military targets such as surveillance bases and radar stations before exploding into them. India is also in talks with the US for procurement of the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) armed Predator-B, also called the MQ-9 Reaper UCAV. It is capable of carrying four Hell-Fire missiles and two 500 pounds of laser-guided bombs.
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has also developed its own domestic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program. The project aims to develop a domestic arsenal to replace and augment the existing fleet of unmanned vehicles. Pilotless target aircraft ‘Lakshya’ and multi-mission UAV ‘Nishant’ are in use with Indian Armed Forces.
DRDO is also developing ‘Rustom’ for the three services, which is a MALE unmanned air vehicle. DRDO is also developing autonomous stealth UCAV under project Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) for IAF, which is now named ‘Ghatak’. It will be similar in design to Northrop Grumman ‘B-2 Spirit’ flying-wing and capable of releasing missiles and precision bombs. Many mini and micro UAV projects are also under progress with DRDO as the lead agency.
So far, the Indian Armed Forces have been using the fixed-wing drones just for ISR purposes. However, weaponised drones have not been used by India and this is now emerging to be an essential technology in the context of today’s asymmetric warfare. There is hardly any question that for the future of the Indian Military, the UCAVs are important as they are capable of stealthily penetrating the enemy air space with an explosive payload and missiles. There is also a need to ramp up the swarm drone technology for attack and counter-attack tactics.
To saturate the enemy’s AD system so that friendly combat aircraft can carry out their missions or to create an impenetrable wall for the enemy’s air power to defend vital areas, swarm drones are the optimum solution. India is accelerating plans to develop an air-launched swarm drone system designed to attack enemy advanced air defences, like the ones deployed by China across the Ladakh border, thereby greatly reducing the vulnerability of pilots and fighter jets to ground-based air defences. Harnessing indigenous talent and technological capability, IAF is leading the way in using Artificial Intelligence to add to its combat potential.
Though it is a good initiative, the world is already much ahead in this field and India needs to make a sustainable indigenous system keeping the future developments in perspective. With the sophistication of fighting machines and the increasing cost of manned aerial platforms, UAVs are the preferred war machines of the future.