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India’s quest for armed drones

By United States Air Force (http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123245388) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The US government’s decision to grant India the licence for the export of 22 Guardian drones through the US foreign military sales programme will address gaps in India’s maritime surveillance capabilities. However, India’s quest for armed drones in the absence of a defined strategy for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has created misconceptions about their utility for India in conducting cross-border strikes or “surgical strikes” against Pakistan-based terrorists.

The Guardian drones, manufactured by General Atomics, will complement India’s maritime surveillance aircraft at sea in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, helping boost battlespace awareness and target acquisition or guide forces on suspected surface threats. The additional capability will free up the navy’s Boeing P-81s for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). This will be critical given the increasing forays of Chinese submarines in the India Ocean region and India’s capacity-deficit in ASW.

India’s pursuit of armed drones has led it to order 10 Heron TP drones from Israel and this will likely be the highlight of Indo-Israeli defence cooperation against the backdrop of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel. The armed drones were purchased in 2015 for a reported $400 million. These will be India’s first armed drones, significantly expanding the aerial offensive capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

The Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI’s) Heron TPs have an endurance of upwards of 30 hours, maximum take-off weight of 5,300kg and a potential weapons/mission payload of up to 1,000kg. They can be used for both surveillance as well as combat and support roles, and can carry air-to-ground missiles to take out hostile targets. The IAF currently operates a fleet of IAI-made Harpy self-destructing anti-radar drones and IAI searcher UAVs and indigenously built Nishant drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering.

The use of UAVs permits Indian policymakers to exercise the use of force while substantially lowering the risk to military personnel and acts as a force multiplier in enhancing surveillance capabilities. This expands the variety of missions the Indian Armed Forces can conduct.

The use of unmanned systems such as drones removes potential political costs and makes it easier for policymakers to opt for “clean and quick” use of military force rather than the slow and often difficult political and diplomatic options. In India’s case, the Indian military hopes that armed UAVs will give it the capability to conduct symbolic retaliatory attacks against Pakistan-based terrorists while limiting the violation of Pakistani sovereignty and hopefully avoiding any escalatory spiral.

The ideas being promulgated within the Indian military and strategic community on the successful use of armed drones for “surgical strikes”, etc., is contingent on operating in a non-existent air defence environment. Put simply, if manned combat aircraft can’t get to the target, neither can armed drones. The idea that New Delhi could push armed drones in a Pakistani air defence environment to conduct surgical strikes against terrorists is ludicrous. Reality is more constrained and requires a nuanced understanding of the operating environment.

Modern air defences are more dangerous and effective than ever before. Case in point, the US military has rarely used drones in defended or contested air spaces. Armed drones against targets in Afghanistan or Yemen have succeeded as these have undefended air spaces or in Syria and Pakistan because air defences have not been employed to target them.

To mitigate the threat to manned and unmanned aircraft from air defences, India needs long-range stand-off weapons systems along with the requisite advances in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. The under-development air-launched Brahmos for the Sukhoi-30 MKI or the 300km SCALP air-to-ground cruise missiles being acquired for the yet-to-be-inducted Dassault Rafale give India more credible retaliatory options in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir vis-à-vis vulnerable and expensive armed UAVs.

This is not to say that armed UAVs will have no role in transforming the way India fights wars in the future with technological advances in automation, miniaturization, stealth, and other fields. But such capabilities, if they are to be operationalized affordably in India, require the adoption of evolved doctrines and specific operating concepts that enable in-tandem operations involving manned and unmanned assets. The adoption of unmanned assets for adjunct missions also potentially allows for the more efficient use of limited manned platforms.

While reports indicate the existence of a “project Ghatak”, managed by the Aeronautical Development Agency and the Defence Research and Development Organization, for a stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), there is little indication so far from the IAF regarding the strategic/tactical employment of UCAVs. The IAF’s “Air Power Doctrine”, last published in 2012, failed to once mention “unmanned” or “drone”. The IAF’s “Indigenization Roadmap 2016-2025” barely mentions UAVs apart from the fact that the IAF needs to possess highly autonomous strike capabilities against the full spectrum of potential targets.

Given India’s complex security challenges, UAVs have the potential to play a role in enabling the Indian military not only in fighting wars but also in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, and deterring cross-border terrorist attacks. Currently, however, the integration of unmanned assets, especially armed drones, with manned fighters and combined arms concepts remains at a nascent stage.

This commentary originally appeared in LiveMint

Pushan Das
7 July 2017

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