Using armed drones in military operations no longer raises eyebrows, thanks to their widespread use in the on-going conflict in Afghanistan; or as seen in the ongoing conflict in Armenia-Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh).
India has 15,106.7 km of land border and a coastline of 7,516.6 km including island territories and securing the borders against hostile forces is critical to the country’s security. Using armed drones in military operations no longer raises eyebrows, thanks to their widespread use in the on-going conflict in Afghanistan; or as seen in the ongoing conflict in Armenia-Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh).
According to C4I expert Milind Kulshrestha, “With their unprecedented reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to trace a target for hours, the drone is the favourite word with all militaries. For the future of the Indian Military, the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are important as they are capable of stealthily penetrating the enemy air space with an explosive payload and missiles.”
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.
According to the C4I 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.”
What are the advantages of using drones?
As has been reported by Financial Express Online, the UAVs or Drones are going to replace 80 per cent of the operations presently carried out by the manned aircraft.
India first got a UAV back in 1996 when the Indian Army had acquired an Israeli Searcher MkI. 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.
“Most of the videos pertaining to the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that have been released by either Azerbaijan or Armenia are inconclusive. For instance, Azerbaijan released a video of an Armenian S-300 SAM system that was apparently destroyed by Azerbaijani drone/UAVs. However, if you observe the video closely you will realize that the radars destroyed are not a part of the S-300 system. S-300 uses a PESA solid-state antenna, but the image of the destroyed radar shows a parabolic antenna and not an S-300 radar. UAVs/drones are certainly playing a role but not a major role in striking enemy positions. Furthermore, unlike India’s adversary like China, neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan has a dense, overlapping Air Defense network that can intercept these drones,” observes Debajit Sarkar, an expert in Smart Weapons, Artificial Intelligence & Aerospace.
“Indian Army and Air force face a bigger challenge with respect to intercepting enemy UAVs/drones that routinely enter Indian airspace from either Pakistan and China. Pakistan & China are probably sending in UAVs/drones inside Indian airspace to determine reaction time of the Indian Army and Air Force. The precision engagement of mobile, non-cooperative targets like drones, requires a reduced “sensor-to-shooter” kill chain. And this can be achieved through real-time ISR and real-time targeting,” Mr Sarkar explains.
“In fact, the Indian Army should strive to acquire SIGINT specific ISR data from a wide variety of airborne sensors, both manned and unmanned, that operate at safe stand-off distances from ground threats. Apart from this, major investments in Electronic Warfare (EW) will have to be made to effectively target drones especially a swarm drone attack. EW systems that can disrupt short wave radio channels, guidance channels of standoff weapons and ISR aircraft and even interrupt satellite functions of the adversaries will help the Indian armed forces to effectively repel a swarm drone attack. The Indian Army’s design lab, as well as DRDO, can also start working on Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) technology.”
“This technology in its barebone essence already exists but needs a man in the loop who has to analyze or process an image of the target with available 3D models of red and blue forces and determine what the actual target is. This process can be fully automated where a computer replaces the man in the loop and thereby shortens the sensor to shooter kill chain,” Mr Sarkar concludes.
What is the key to a drone attack?
It has to be a combination of precision and surprise play a critical role, which essentially means ground and air surveillance together until the operation is over. And for this, as Kulshreshtha, explains “For a planned strike, the human intelligence (HUMINT) on the ground is very important as it helps in tracking the target for days and sometimes for weeks. So, for covert drone strikes, human intelligence and digital espionage mechanism is very important.”
Are the Indian Armed Forces ready for drone strikes?
Not really. So far the Indian services have been using the fixed-wing drones just for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) 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. And for drone launched missiles, there would be a requirement for Indian HUMINT operatives in the area of interest. And this would be a new effective warfare tactic, something similar to what the US is using.
A report by Patrick Tucker on an American web portal Defence One talks about massive tests carried out by the US Army of its future warfare plans. The US Army had linked together experimental drones, ground robots, satellites, and the goal was to show that the weapons and tools linked by AI can be used by humans to target, designate and strike from the air. And this is possible not only from a distance, by using any weapon, but in a fraction of the time, it takes to destroy the target.
At the end of that experiment, it emerged that in such a future warfare scenario, more people writing and analyzing code and data in real-time, closer to the action are required.
There will be a need for a new type of soldier who will be trained in AI, data science, software development and should be able to work and re-work algorithms closer to the front lines, or nearer to the area of conflict.
In the conflict, even the enemy will be changing tactics in using the same technology, therefore the code-writers will be playing a critical role as the algorithm will be changed to move the data faster.
30 Armed Drones from the US
Meanwhile, during the forthcoming India-US 2+2, Ministerial Dialogue expected to be at the end of October, an announcement regarding the $ 3 billion deal for 30 drones from the US-based General Atomics is expected.
Financial Express Online has reported earlier that the deal is 10+10+10 for the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force and that the deal is expected by year-end. And due to the ongoing tensions between India and China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), India is keen on getting these armed drones soon, as the sale of these to India has already been approved by the Trump administration.
Sources have told Financial Express Online, “Until the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) is not issued, nothing else can move. Once that is received that everything will move faster.”