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Unmanned warfare
Increased requirement of surveillance along the India-China and India-Pakistan borders besides huge coast line of 7000 kms and two major island territories on both the coasts has necessitated the acquisition of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles for all the units of the Indian armed forces.

Keeping a round the clock vigilance on the rising incidents of incursions and infiltrations through the borders of the neighboring countries requires 24x7 surveillance, which is not possible manually considering the human limitations and varied tough terrains from the hilly jungles in the north east to cold desert mountains from Ladakh to Kashmir and hot deserts of Rajasthan. It is physically impossible for the military to be posted on every kilometer stretch of the international borders and line of Actual control; hence the technical means are required to be employed for regular monitoring.

The absence of UAVs during the Kargil conflict of 1999 was felt very much. The Pakistani intruders would have been easily spotted on the Kargil heights over 1500 kms long  Line of Control in the Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir. The UAVs would also have helped Indian artillery and the fighters to acquire the target easily.  If the UAVs would have been used for surveillance during the winter days when the Indian soldiers were withdrawn because of sub zero temperatures, the intruders in first place would have been spotted the day they started moving towards Indian peaks.

Global demand

However at that time the use of UAVs were not in vogue in other parts of the world as well. But after 9/11 the US armed forces accelerated the development and production work of the UAVs. Today it has acquired so much tactical significance in combat planning that one third of the US air inventory comprises of the UAVs. Its very effective utilization in the Afghan war against Taliban   by the US led forces has resulted in fast tracking the UAVdevelopment and production program world over, which will be the leading military products in the coming years.

Considering its significance India’s rival Pakistan has claimed success in the domestic UAV development and production, though experts know that the Burraq and Shahpar UAVs are the replicas of the Chinese Rainbow CH-3 UCAV which is capable of launching missiles. Even a country like Nigeria has claimed success in developing indigenous UAV named Gulma for the Nigerian Air Force.

The evolution of UAV technology of much longer duration and range has facilitated the armed forces world over to depend on these unmanned systems to monitor their borders and even launch aerial attack directed from the control rooms of the army battalions.

The Indian Army Headquarter has approved a plan to equip each infantry battalion with three mini-UAVs. For this and other services, the MoD is expected to release five additional tenders for the purchase of over 600 mini UAS systems to be operated by the air force, infantry and artillery units and also for the State Police forces. The demand for these systems is expected to be over US$ 1.25 billion with plans to produce them in India. Considering the huge requirement of UAVs for the armed forces in the coming years, the Indian DRDO and its associated organizations besides the private sector has chalked out ambitious plans to produce latest technology equipped UAVs.

The Indian Army is considering providing eight aerial systems with each divisional artillery brigade. The Army Headquarter is also considering provision to equip each corps of a Loitering Missile Battery comprising of eight missiles with associated ground systems.  It has been felt that there is a need for hand launched Mini UAVs which would have an endurance of two hours and a range of 10kms, with a payload capable of giving good eye view of the area surveyed.

India’s fleet

Indian military has imported the UAVs mainly from Israel but Indian DRDO seems to have succeeded in laying a good foundation of indigenous UAV program, which will bear fruits in the years to come. The Aeronautical Development Agency of DRDO has developed the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV named Rustam-2 which will later replace the Israeli Herons.

The Rustam can take off and land from a runway using a conventional undercarriage. The Rustam-2 will have a wing span of 21 meters with 24 hours endurance and a payload of 350 kgs. The ADE is also working on the armed variant of UAV called Rustam-C which will be armed with missiles and will be capable of undertaking combat and surveillance missions. Another Unmanned project called AURA-which is a codename for its autonomous Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle-is also under development.

Only last December the Indian government approved Rs 1200 crores plan to acquire additional 15 Heron UAVs and associated equipment from Israel and also plans to upgrade the current stock of UAVs with latest communication systems.

India earlier had imported 25 Herons from Israel in 2005. But the massive length of India’s borders with neighboring countries require a much bigger fleet of such Unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance on borders. India had earlier imported in nineties Searcher Mk-1 and Mk-11 UAVs from Israel. But the Searcher has limitations of performance in terms of range and endurance and high altitude flying. Hence, the military wanted to replace the Searcher UAV with the Herons. Indian military maintains three squadrons of Searchers. Because of increasing incidents of intrusion along the LAC, Indian military told the Ministry of Defence to acquire more capable UAVs as soon as possible. The Indian Air Force wants to induct more than 300 additional UAVs which include combat rotary and micro-UAVs.

The Searcher-II is fitted with the standard day/ night surveillance turret whereas the Herons have got the Elta Systems radar and a stabilized Tamam surveillance and targeting turret. The Heron-2 has a bigger Prat and Whitney Canada PTA turboprop engine. The payload can go up to 1,000 kg and can be flown up to 45,000 feet and can be in the air at that altitude for 36 hours.

The International Security Assistance Force has used the Herons in Afghanistan and the US forces in Iraq to its advantage and its performance has impressed Indian armed forces very much which encouraged Indian military to request MoD to order another 15 Herons from Israel.  These are the high end Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAVs and can be considered performing superior role than some of the fighter and surveillance aircrafts.

The UAVs provide services to the Army at a fraction of time and cost. The rugged terrain of high altitude Line of Actual Control on the Sino-Indian border requires the army to send its units for patrolling duties on foot. The patrolling parties could only have a chance encounter with the rival forces and report their activities to the Indian commanders through wireless transmission. However, the UAVs with one flight oversee the entire length and breadth of the LAC can transmit live the video of the intruding troops. Considering these extraordinary qualities the UAVs have become a must item for all the modern armed forces.

In UAV development and manufacturing the USA and Israel have taken a decisive lead over the others and the Chinese PLA is also inducting latest UAVs produced domestically and imported ones. China’s military unmanned aerial vehicle industry has leapfrogged in recent years and can easily pose challenge to US and Israeli industry through its inexpensive and multifunctional unmanned aerial systems. These are poised to steal the international market away from the US and Israel.

In the strategic UAV segment China is on the brink of becoming a world leader in high end UAV market.  In fact China has started displaying its Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles in international defence exhibitions One interesting point to note is that China’s defence industry is not in the forefront of UAV design and production but academic institutions have taken a lead. In fact the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics has developed medium altitude long endurance BZK-005. Other institutions have developed advanced UAV systems for strategic IAR (Intelligence, Surveillance and reconnaissance) and precision strike missions. The Northwest Polytechnical University of China has emerged as the most prominent and prolific design and development centre, which holds about 90 percent of the Chinese domestic UAV market. This University is reported to have delivered over 1500 UAVs to the Chinese military.

Surely the Pakistani armed forces would be the major buyer of Chinese UAVs which will put additional pressure on Indian armed forces. Hence India cannot afford to be reticent in UAV acquisition. Since the UAVs would play a major role in effective border management, the armed forces will have to change its priorities in arms acquisition.