Two recent attacks on India’s security forces, though far away from each other—one by Maoists on CRPF men in the jungle infested terrain of central India, and the other by Pakistanis on Indian troops on the LOC—have both highlighted the importance of drones in battling such adversaries. It is precisely for its force multiplier effects that the ‘drone’ has emerged as a favourite weapon of the powerful western countries, particularly the US: as it gives them hi-tech capabilities with no damage to the lives and equipment of its soldiers or drone operators, since drones are mostly invisible, operating from as high as 50,000 feet—until they strike. Officially called the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), it can hover in the skies for up to 24 hours to watch every action of the adversary, unseen, until it delivers death!
Until now though, India has only been using UAV’s for surveillance along the volatile Line of Control (LOC), since successive governments in Delhi have been advised—by the doves in Delhi—not to confront the Pakistanis and their cross border terror apparatus with this weapon system, fearing an escalation. As for using UAV’s in their passive role against the Maoists (as is done on the LOC) for early warnings and reconnaissance, the Home Ministry, that is responsible for anti-Maoist operations, either lacks the vision or the funds, to do so. But this is just the weapon that Indian troops need to get back at their attackers, effectively, with focused and punitive use of drones, which serves the multiple roles of surveillance and the pin pointed elimination of targets, when required.
The US and Israel have done this for years, and even though India’s politicians love to cite their examples as ‘hard’ States, India’s leadership has fought shy of using this option. But limited punitive strikes—at Pakistan’s terrorist launch pads and camps along the LOC—would to begin with, serve as a deterrent to the Pakistan army. Moreover, it would relieve the pressure on the Indian government ‘to do something’, since ‘surgical strikes’ cannot be undertaken frequently, but drone attacks can be a tit for tat action.
Apparently, one reason why New Delhi withheld from publicly displaying the evidence of the ‘surgical strikes’ was that some Pakistani army personnel were eliminated in those attacks on terror launch pads, since they operate closely with their jihadi proxies. India feared that an embarrassed Pakistani army would have been forced by public opinion to escalate matters. It is for such reasons that the aggressive use of drones would serve a clinically efficient purpose on the LOC, whereas in the Maoists/ naxal infested jungles, they can certainly serve as an early warning tool against groups of Maoists/naxals planning an attack.
Despite the objections of human rights groups—as a study by the Columbia University’s Law School’s Human Rights Institute estimates that as high as 98% of drone strike casualties are civilians (50 for every one “suspected terrorist”)—the US has undertaken in recent years, drone attacks on ‘suspected terrorists’ in the tribal regions of Pakistan and Yemen, as also in Afghanistan and Somalia. US experts on its usage say that drones operate like any other military aircraft, except that its pilot is on the ground and not on board, so there isn’t a need for new rules. One estimate says that over the next decade, about 30,000 drones will be flying around in US air space itself. By 2012, the US had commissioned about 20,000 drones—following extensive lobbying by military manufacturers like General Atomics and Lockheed Martin—with countries like the UK, Russia, and China following suit. There is no reason why India shouldn’t seriously revisit its long standing passive stand and go beyond the use of drones for intelligence gathering, but also now employ drones to strike its foes.
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