India’s indigenous drones

India’s indigenous drones

Running into problems of supply even as the military establishment begins to import drone technology, India is working full speed to develop its own line of unmanned aerial vehicles.

In the last five years, India has accounted for seven percent of the world's arms imports. To counter what they see as the rapidly transforming nature of 'asymmetric' as well as the standard strategic threats, the Indian armed forces are actively seeking to purchase the latest technologies and weaponry. Accordingly, the military has started a massive modernisation drive phased over the next 12 years at the cost of a whopping USD 200 billion. A large part of this is earmarked for augmenting India's fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, commonly known as 'drones'.

Since the intelligence failures that led to the 1999 Kargil conflict and the 2002 attack on the Parliament house in New Delhi, the Indian military inducted over 100 UAVs into its forces – mainly Israeli-built UAVs known as the Searcher and the Heron, used for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (IRS). Evidently satisfied with their experience of drones, all three wings of the armed forces are now planning a major induction of UAVs, for which requests for information (RIF) were floated in last one year. There are multiple reasons behind this. First, technologically advanced militaries across the world have incorporated UAVs as a new critical component that can be used to track communications, enemy movement, real-time data transmission and detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Some can also act as missiles for precision strikes on enemy targets. Further, UAVs allow for better manoeuvrability and eliminate the 'G-force' limitations that affect to piloted aircrafts. The absence of an onboard human crew also has its obvious advantages in cases of crashes over enemy territory. Apart from its military utility, UAVs are also in demand as they are cheaper than manned systems.

Second, in view of terrorist attacks, as in the case of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the continued insurgency in Kashmir and heightened Naxalite activities, the top brass feels it crucial that the Indian armed forces strengthen their surveillance abilities across the western frontier, in the Maoist-affected states of central India and along India's extensive coastline. Having received flak for an inept internal security apparatus, the government plans to strengthen such arrangements, and the use of drones has become a hallmark of anti-'terrorist' operations ever since the US began to use the technology in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Third, Pakistan is pushing to receive armed US Predator drones as part of its military-aid package from Washington, under the pretext of effective anti-extremist operations. Although US Undersecretary of Defence Michele Flournoy assured India in August that around 12 unarmed Shadow or Scan Eagle drones would be sold to Pakistan within a year, officials in Islamabad say they remain hopeful of getting the armed Predators in the near future. In the meantime, Pakistan is also jointly developing an armed drone with China. If Islamabad were to get an armed drone from any source, the UAV balance in Southasia would tilt against India as the latter currently lacks reusable armed drones like Predator.

In New Delhi, having understood the value of the UAVs on hand, the thrust is now to move towards the use of drones as weapons delivery vehicles. India has declared intentions for mass acquisition of what are known as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), to strengthen the armed forces in conventional wars; with a part of the military establishment (particularly the defence hawks) keen to gain UCAVs to make precision strikes on extremist training camps across the border. At present, India has less than five of such Harpy killer drones from Israel Aerospace Industry, but IAI has been informed that New Delhi expects at least 25 to 30 more of these within the next two years. These also include the advanced version of Harpy, named the Harop, which includes electro-optical sensors that enable them to hit even close radars that do not emit signals. Both Harpy and Harop are primarily focused suppressing enemy air defences. But Harpy and Harop drones destroy themselves along with the target, which is why they are called 'kamikaze', making them a costly investment. What India wants is reusable UCAVs that can replace manned fighter jets for dangerous medium and long-range bombing missions.

However, it will take some years before such acquisitions come through. This was evident from the lukewarm response to India's RIF in June this year for a fleet of stealthy UCAVs. Most of the manufacturers shied away from responding, given that most of their research had not move beyond the prototype level, or they were bound by technology-transfer norms. The US, which is a leader is UCAVs, is out of bounds due to the lack of outcome on technology-sharing agreements with India. Even after the signing of these agreements, transfer of sensitive technology from the US to India is doubtful given the negative reaction of Pakistan – at least, as long as Pakistani involvement is required in the US-led 'war on terror'. Israel, on the other hand, poses no such obstacles.

With, without Israel
While there is widespread agreement within the Indian military about the growing importance of UAVs and UCAVs, there is a debate about spending billions of rupees on buying these from a single foreign source. Israel and the US came to a head in 2004 over an Israel-China Harpy deal; the US claimed that the Harpy contained US technology, and demanded Israel seize the Harpy fleet that China had sent for upgradation. (Eventually, Israel had to return the fleet to China without doing the required work.) Despite the deepening Indo-US defence ties, there is a thin possibility that the US might repeat the moves it made in 2004 in future upgradation of India's Harpy fleet, especially if geopolitical compulsions make the US take cognisance of Pakistan's concern over Indian killer drones. There are also sections that oppose spending so much money on foreign UAVs at a time when India's own Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has shown the potential to develop indigenous drones.

For the moment, the Indian military seems to be splitting the difference, continuing to source UAVs from Israel while simultaneously increasing the focus on developing an indigenous alternative. Multiple government and private players are currently working on developing UAV systems. Not only do many see this as making economic sense, but there is also the fear of the possible blockage of sale of a certain type of unmanned aircraft – known as MALE, for medium-altitude, long-endurance – to India. Most observers agree such aircraft would be required to bring India's UAV line up to the same level as the more advanced militaries, but such technology is susceptible to being blocked under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary international convention in place since 1987. This places particular focus on unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a distance of at least 300 km. India and Israel are unilateral adherents to MTCR, but not parties to it.

The DRDO, headquartered in Delhi and falling within India's Ministry of Defence, has already developed two UAVs, known as Lakshya and Nishant, and is now working on an indigenous MALE drone Rustom. Built to the Indian Army's specifications, the Nishant has completed both the development phase and a trials period successfully. This 'multi-mission' UAV is unique in that it has no wheels, and is designed in such a way as to eliminate the need for a runway – its launcher system can simply be mounted on a truck, and can be launched at intervals of less than half an hour. The Nishant can remain in the air for four and a half hours, flying at a maximum speed of 185 km/hr. A limited series of 12 Nishant UAVs is said to be planned for induction into the army soon. The Lakshya, on the other hand, is a pilotless target aircraft to tow flying targets, providing aerial target tracking and live-fire combat training.

Indian developers have been working with Israel Aerospace Industries to develop three UAVs, the Rustom MALE and the short-range Pawan and Gagan. Having cost some USD 100 million in research and development, the Rustom can fly at an altitude of 9000 metres or more for up to 24 hours. Its natural surveillance range of 250 km is extendable beyond 1000 km, given that it is capable of using satellite links to transmit data. Though not touted as such, the Rustom can also function as a killer drone. All three defence services have shown interest in acquiring the Rustom, with the army keen to start using seven troops (six to eight UAVs each) of them. According to news reports, the Rustom has reached the government's Cabinet Committee on Security for final financial approval. Its first prototype crashed during a test flight last year, but another is said to be ready for tests by the end of this year.

The Pawan is a short-range UAV developed at a cost of USD 33.2 million. Meant to equip Indian Army divisions, the craft will have the capability to engage in surveillance during the day and night, flying for around five hours with a range of 150 km. The Gagan, developed for some USD 55.5 million, is an advanced version of the Nishant, with a range of 250 km and an altitude capability of 6000 m. India's Hindustan Aeronautics has also entered into joint development programmes with Israeli Aerospace Industries to develop Chetak helicopters into ship-borne UAVs, and the Indian Navy has placed an order for eight such machines. However, the programme is plagued by the lack of a correct landing and take-off system for moving platforms such as the decks of warships.

The latest reports indicate that the Indian Army is currently on the lookout for miniature UAVs as well, which can evade enemy radar, are easy to handle and can be launched without runways. The main aim is to use them for monitoring mountainous terrain, conflict zones and congested urban areas. However, it wants these so-called MAVs to serve a dual purpose, capable of carrying explosives and to act as killer drones for small but high-value targets. Currently, there are plans afoot to integrate MAVs up to the battalion level by the end of the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17), with priority given to units deployed in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast. The air force has also issued requests for information on even smaller MAVs, those that weigh less than two kg and can fly for around 30 minutes at a stretch.

However, India's most prized indigenous drone programme is the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA), revealed in May. AURA is touted as the country's first high-speed, stealthy UCAV, which will autonomously seek, identify and destroy targets with laser-guided weapons. A design is likely to be decided upon by 2011. The tepid response to RIF for UCAVs reinforced the view that transfer of this technology is fraught with problems, and pursuing an indigenous programme is the only way forward. AURA is also crucial for the fact that it will use artificial intelligence, and transfer of this technology from foreign source would not have been possible. There has been no indication from the Indian government so far that the programme will hire an international technology partner, but many manufacturers (including BAE Systems, Dassault and IAI) have already expressed their willingness to partner in an AURA programme.

The debate begins
In recent years, the relative 'success' of US drones against the Taliban and al-Qaeda along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has left the Indian Army hoping to employ similar tactics in counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations. However, the intended use is strictly for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance purposes within the borders. Accordingly, MAVs are to be made available to the army's special and paramilitary forces of the Army, which the brass is hoping will enhance ground knowledge along India's land and maritime borders.

India's UAV programme became an issue of public discourse when the Home Ministry ordered a trial run of an American T-MAV over the jungles of Bastar, in Chhattisgarh, in the aftermath of the Dantewada incident in which 76 security personnel were killed in a Maoist ambush on 6 April. The trial run began in the evening of 14 April and continued until late night, during which time the UAV was checked for providing thermal images of movement on the ground as well as detection of IEDs and ammunition dumps. However, media reports said that, in certain cases of mine detection, the UAV could not pick up signals properly and only showed some disturbance on the surface. With intelligence-gathering a huge problem in the forest-covered Maoist strongholds of central India, the trial run was meant to gauge the possibility of using UAVs to forewarn troops about the exact locations and movement of the Maoist rebels. In June, media reports indicated that the central government had asked the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), a highly specialised technical intelligence-gathering agency that falls under India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, to deploy its six UAVs in these operations.

The trial run did not go as well as hoped, however. At an internal-security conference held in New Delhi on 28 July, a high-ranking official with the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) revealed that the security forces had not been able to acquire surveillance equipment that could penetrate the thick forest cover to give desired intelligence information. Meanwhile, the Chhattisgarh state government is said to be pushing to re-test UAVs after the monsoon this year, when the forest canopy will be even denser. In the meanwhile, the central government has decided to put on hold its move to deploy UAVs until the end of the year, given that the anti-Maoist operations slow down during the monsoons as dense forests make the movement of the security forces extremely difficult.

Still, the use of armed forces internally, unless as a last resort, is unpopular in Indian public and military circles. The deployment of armed forces not only brings with it the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, but the armed forces are already overstretched with internal commitments in J&K and the Northeast. No wonder that the usually restrained chiefs of the armed forces were recently very opposed to Home Minister P Chidambaram's statements about deployment of the armed forced in Maoist areas, as was Defence Minister A K Antony. The Defence Ministry, however, had offered no comment on the demand for the use of UAVs; but as India has no precedent for using air power for anything other than international warfare, the government will have to underline that the UAVs would be engaged only for intelligence-gathering.

The three-month controversy between the Home and Defence Ministries was put to a rest in June by the Cabinet Committee on Security, which decided against the deployment of armed forces in Maoist areas, limiting the role of the armed forces to training, rescue and relief. The air support was decided to be given to the security personnel only for logistic and evacuation purposes. However, with every major Maoist attack, there will almost certainly be renewed debate for the deployment of the armed forces. Recent media reports claimed that the air force has been given permission to fire in self-defence if its helicopters engaged on logistical missions are fired at by the Maoists. However, there are strict conditions that they can only use side-mounted machine guns in retaliation and not rockets or the integral guns. If any such use of force caused collateral damage, however, the Defence Ministry would become increasingly adamant with regards to non-deployment, for the fear of sullying its image. This would bring the two ministries in charge of country's security into a heads-on collision.

Thus is a situation in which the Indian armed forces, in their bid to modernise, are spending billions to induct the latest in arms technology; while simultaneously, there is a clear mandate among them not to resort to killing Indian citizens. Despite the plan to equip the lowest levels with UAVs, there is currently no policy on using UAVs for internal deployment. But their quiet acquiescence to the deployment of UAVs for surveillance against the Maoists shows their willingness to adopt newly acquired technology to enhance internal security. However, their vehement opposition to the deployment of the armed force units for counter-insurgency operations implies that they would be morally opposed to any manoeuvre involving killer drones within India itself. At a time when the 2 August incident of an unmanned US helicopter – which lost its link with ground operators due to a software malfunction, and entered restricted airspace around Washington, DC – is set to open further debate on the extent of autonomy given to UCAVs, the Indian establishment and media are yet to begin discussing the conditions, and legal and ethical consequences, of deploying unmanned aircraft within the country's borders.

The classifications of UAVs are fairly fluid, and can be classified on basis of performance aspects or on the basis of missions. The one classification that is widely used is done by the US military, which profiles UAVs into tiers based on altitude; but other factors include endurance, speed, range and size.
Tier N/A: Small/micro UAV
Tier I: Low altitude, long endurance UAV
IAI Searcher, RQ-2 Pioneer
Tier II: Medium altitude, long endurance UAV (MALE).
MQ-1 Predator, IAI Heron
Tier II+: High altitude, long endurance UAV (HALE/HAE).
RQ-4 Global Hawk
Tier III-: High altitude, long endurance but low-observable
RQ-170 Sentinel
Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian