The ministry of defence is shortly expected to approve the authorisation of mini-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for infantry and mechanised infantry battalions as an integral surveillance asset. This will enhance the ability of these battalions to supplement intelligence that filters down to them from centralised reconnaissance and surveillance means, and fill in the gaps in their area of interest in real time. Mini UAVs will be force-multipliers.
General Dalbir Singh Suhag, the Chief of the Army Staff, recently said that “UAVs would play a vital role in future battles and there is a requirement to enhance the Indian army holdings.”
Of the four ‘pathfinder’ projects short-listed for development and co-production during the Obama-Modi summit, one was the next-generation Raven mini-UAV for battlefield surveillance. The current Raven UAV is hand-launched and has a range of 10 km. India has the indigenous Nishant and the Israeli Heron and Searcher I & II UAVs in service.
UAVs are low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (TA) systems. UAVs can be deployed quickly to cover vast areas. They improve situational awareness, increase operational tempo and reduce sensor-to-shooter time lag. When employed in conjunction with other sensors, UAVs confirm or negate the efficacy of information gathered and, thus, improve the intelligence available to commanders.
UAVs can fulfil a number of reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) requirements common to all the Services.
* Strategic surveillance of nuclear capabilities, movement of nuclear warheads and materials, and deployment of nuclear assets of adversaries, particularly during a war;
* Detection of missile launches;
* Photo reconnaissance, thermal imaging and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) during peace time, preparatory stages and during a war for battlespace transparency;
* Target designation for ground-, air- and sea-launched precision-guided munitions (PGMs);
* Suppressing enemy air defence;
* Post-strike damage assessment;
* Signals and electronic intelligence (SIGINT and ELINT);
* Electronic warfare;
* Information warfare, psychological and propaganda operations;
* Relay platform to extend range of VHF and UHF communications;
* Nuclear, biological, chemical weapons detection, early warning and monitoring of contamination (nature and level of nuclear radiation, collection of air samples);
* Digital mapping;
Then there are the unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), which have proved their efficacy in recent conflicts in Afghanistan and West Asia. UCAVs can be ‘cued on’ to targets that have been identified and selected for destruction or act as stand-alone hunter-killers in a battlespace that is teeming with targets. It has been reported that the IAF may induct the Harop UCAV of Israeli origin. It is a combination of a UAV and a missile and is disposable. Also, the DRDO is developing the AURA (autonomous unmanned research aircraft) UCAV for the IAF.
Future UAV technologies
Sensor suites are the most important sub-system of modern UAVs and account for one-third to half its cost. Sensors must provide information and data in an electronic form that is compliant with network centricity requirements of the Services. Ideally, data standards should be the same in all the Services so that inputs provided by surveillance devices of one Service can be used without any problem by the other. But while the Services are working on achieving compatibility, in the short-term it may be adequate to share information after due sifting rather than automatically.
The most common user need, particularly of the army, is seeing a real-time picture of the battlefield during daylight conditions. Hence, real-time video-streaming is important. Since it requires a large bandwidth, video imposes constraints on the communications suite that a UAV can carry. Modern satellites provide photos of one-metre resolution, and photos of up to 30-cm resolution can be procured commercially. Specially designed military satellites are capable of providing a still higher resolution. Hence, it would be justifiable for the users to demand daylight photos of equally good resolution from UAVs that fly at much lower altitudes. The electro-optical/thermal imaging/infra-red (EO/TI/IR) sensors available today can meet this demand.
Some limitations of EO/TI/IR sensors can be overcome by SAR that can take all-weather day and night images with a fairly high resolution and can look through clouds, fog and foliage. Resolutions of the order of 0.3 to 0.1 metres at 25 to 20 km, respectively, are now available. While radar weight is a major consideration, SAR systems are being modernised and miniaturised at a rapid rate. A future Indian SAR system should be so designed that the technology can be upgraded even after introduction.
Fail-safe communications are required not only to provide operator instructions to UAVs, but also to downlink information and data collected by UAVs and for UAVs to act as a communications relay platform. Secure, reliable VHF and UHF radio links are needed for command and control. Larger bandwidths are necessary for data download.
Advances in satellite technology have brought UAVs into the ambit of satellite control and reduced the need for relay stations to optimally exploit their range. For naval UAVs on long endurance offshore missions, satellite links are inescapable.
UAVs must be able to provide an accurate location of enemy targets or points of interest. For the purposes of targeting by artillery fire, the location should be accurate to within five metres. Even with GPS, especially non-military use GPS, such accuracies may not be achieved. Hence, it is necessary to strive for more accurate survey and location technologies.
In the modern air defence environment, the survivability of UAVs is crucial. The technologies needed for survivability include low radar signature, radar warning receivers, chaff dispensers, electronic counter-countermeasures (ECCM) suites to ensure that communications with UAVs are not disrupted, low acoustic signature of the engine and radar absorbing paints. These will undoubtedly burden designers with the need to strike a balance between the size, shape and weight of the airframe, and the payload that can be carried.
The ground control station (GCS) is the hub of all UAV operations. The GCS should be developed to common standards for all the Services so that interoperability is ensured. These should be capable of interfacing with the command and control and decision support systems of their respective Service, and the relevant sub-systems like the Battlefield Surveillance System (BSS) of the army. While Service-specific utility and interoperability through commonality of data are conflicting requirements, these have to be met if all the surveillance assets are to be optimally utilised.
It is not enough to merely locate static and moving targets by employing UAVs on long duration missions and generating a vast data bank. As these provide a real-time capability, the required tri-Service infrastructure must be created to analyse the incoming inputs within minutes, sift ‘actionable’ bits from those that help build a continuous intelligence picture and disseminate the actionable information to the users.
The roles and missions of UAVs have been expanding since their advent in 1982, when the Israeli army first used them for surveillance and as decoys over the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. Since then, UAVs have been extensively employed for RSTA and are acknowledged as effective force-multipliers. Emerging technologies will only enhance UAV effectiveness. A high level of tri-Service networking is required for optimum exploitation of the capabilities of UAVs. The next logical step will be to introduce UCAVs into service as a low-cost option for air-to-ground strikes.
The author is distinguished fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), and former director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi