Thursday, March 23rd, 2023 18:41:55


By RSN Singh
Updated: February 10, 2023 6:51 pm

A few days back there were two drone strikes in Syria in which six Iraqi refrigerated trucks were destroyed. These trucks were reportedly carrying weapons to pro-Iranian groups like Hezebollah. The Assad regime also receives weapons from Iran. Though no one has taken responsibility, the usual suspect is Israel. Next day when the pro-Iranian commander went to the spot to assess the destruction, a drone destroyed him as well. The Iranians had used Iraqi trucks as subterfuge so as to obviate this very drone threat. The rival Intelligence however beat them.

In Jan 2020 the US killed Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the powerful Quds Force of Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRG) by a Predator drone in Baghdad. In 2018, Syrian rebels attacked a Russian airbase with more than a dozen drones. In April 2022, Ukraine sank the flagship ‘Moskova’ of the Black Sea Fleet. It is believed during the attack the ship’s defences were diverted by the Turkish make ‘Bayraktar’ drone and then Neptune anti-ship missile was used to destroy the ship.

Reportedly, Ukraine has also used Bayraktar drones to target pro-Russian separatists in Donbas. Earlier Yemeni Houthis had targeted Abaqiq Oilfields in Saudi Arabia causing extensive damage.The Saudi Aramco had to suspend its operations. Thus drones were able to hit global oil supplies .In Libya the internationally recognized govt owes its survival to Chinese made drones sold to UAE.

Closer home, on 26 June 2021, the technical area of the Jammu airport came under drone attack by Pakistan. The drone delivered two bombs which exploded  within a gap of five minutes.

This was the first drone attack by any country on a defence establishment in India.


These examples are geopolitically widespread in terms of drone warfare encompassing West Asia, Europe, Russia, South Asia particularly India and Pakistan. Actively feeding into this drone narrative is the US, China, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel. Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are proliferating. To begin with, like Electric Vehicles, they were rare, but now they are everywhere.

As per the Rand Corporation report of 2014, there are 50 countries that manufacture UAVs for reconnaissance and surveillance, but only 23 countries have so far successfully produced UCAV I.e. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles. Considering the fact that only few selected powers had this capability, the proliferation is noteworthy. The US used MQ-1Predator UAVs extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US capability in terms of UAV was unrivaled. The Predator too was first designed for aerial reconnaissance, later it was modified to carry Hell Fire missile. It was a natural progression, just as UAVs evolved from auto pilot.


One of the plausible theories for disappearance of Malaysian aircraft MH 370 on 08 March 2014 is obliquely attributed to the UAV. As per this belief the Taliban had captured an entire system of UAV deployed by the USA and put it up for sale. The most successful bid was from China. The entire system and paraphernalia was then taken by ship to Seychelles and then to Malaysia in the Chinese embassy. Two former US marines working for a private firm personally escorted the weapon system. The aircraft was on its way to China and then it disappeared.

To say that aircraft turned or was compelled to take western course into the Indian Ocean does not stand to logic on two counts: first, going west would have meant gaining into the night; and second moving westward, the air defence network becomes increasingly dense. While eastward move meant gaining into the first light in matter of less than two hours thus permitting the aircraft to fly low above the sea surface. This Pacific route at low altitude afforded relatively low detection risk from radars.

Did the affected power manipulate the flight path by subversion or other means to prevent the UAV technology falling in Chinese hands? Was the UAV technology so sensitive and precious? Well there are many instances of such tradeoffs between human lives and hyper sensitive weapon technology secrets..

When Homi J Bhabha was killed in plane crash (Air India 101) on 24 January 1966, there were 117 passengers on board. The flight was on way to London from Bombay. It crashed into Mont Blanc Massif in France. Homi J Bhabha was key to India’s nuclear weapons programme. Only 13 days before, on 11 January 1966, the then Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died at Tashkent under mysterious circumstances in the aftermath of Indo-Pak 1965 War. It is believed he also was a votary of India’s nuclear weapon capability There is no price  therefore great enough, human or otherwise ,when it comes to safeguarding sensitive weapon technologies.

In the beginning of this article a bewildering range of targets have been listed , killed and destroyed by drones. The range includes a top military General, a prestigious naval vessel, a convoy of trucks, a massive oil facility and an airport. For the same results, are there any other menans ,even half efficient and half economical? Hence the UAVs are the best weapons available for Intelligence operations, that are  precise and with little collateral impact.


Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UACV) or even normal  surveillance UAVs have undoubtedly revolutionized warfare. In the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azerbaijan forces used Turkish supplied drones to devastating effect. The Armenian tanks and artillery guns had no answer to onslaught of drones. It would not be wrong to say that it was drones that enabled Azerbaijan to capture the enclave. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh underscored another vital military message that owing to the drones, ground troops are equally, if not more threatened from air as on ground. Air superiority in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) in the conventional sense is being replaced by ‘superiority in UAV’ factor. Ground forces now may not have to rely on classical close air support. The calculation for conventional allotment of artillery effort in offensive and defensive operations may also undergo change.

There are several advantages that drones have over manned systems. They are much cheaper compared to manned aircraft, they have endurance up to 30 hours. In fact Reapers with in-flight refueling can go up to 70 hours. For a pilot to spend these many hours in the cockpit,  if not impossible, is a hazardous proposition. Then the G-Force that impacts the pilot is not a factor with drones. The biggest advantage that drones have over fighter aircraft is that there is no loss of personnel, something democracies are loathe and sensitive about. Say, if Wing Commander Abhinandan had not been returned by Pakistan, it would have haunted the politics of India for all times to come. The US government could circumvent the War Power Act with respect to Libya in the Congress on the plea that its military assistance does not involve boots on ground.


In January 2021 the Indian Army demonstrated its drone capability in Delhi. 75 drones / UAVs were deployed in kamikaze style for destruction of simulated targets. This was a simulated drone swarm offensive 50 km inside enemy territory for independent military destruction tasks. The plan is to increase the capability to deploy a swarm of thousand drones The facet of delivering supplies to troops by means of UAVs was also demonstrated. Last year the Indian Army had demonstrated the capability to deploy a swarm of 48 drones released from a truck mounted launcher.

Employment of drone swarms has sparked  intense debate amongst military analysts. The debate is ‘ mass versus class”. In this regard the US is an interesting case. During Second World War the US had about three lakh combat aircraft, today it has about 13500 in its inventory. This massive reduction over the years was without comprising on the defence and strategic imperatives. This was possible because of leaps in technology. A single aerial platform combined in itself the role and function of several platforms in terms speed, reach and lethality. Hence technology triumphed over volumes.

The drone swarms are but threatening to reverse the paradigm. Drone swarms which are way cheaper can overwhelm modern piloted combat aircraft which now come at astronomical costs. It is difficult for radars to spot these drone swarms with any clarity, and their destruction by Air Defence Systems is constrained by the fact that availability of ammunition is not limitless. The US has successfully demonstrated release of a drone swarm of 103 drones, from one mother F/A-18 aircraft. Each VALKYRIE drone can carry two small bombs to a range of 2000 miles. Is volume beginning to triumph over technology? Today loss of a modern fighter aircraft is economically unbearable  because of the   humungous cost factor.So do we go back to depend   on numbers and volumes.

‘Manned systems behind unmanned systems’, could be the paradigm of future aerial combat. It could also be the case that the fifth generation combat aircraft may be the last in the evolutionary process.


In the Indian context drones are an imperative for remote controlled operations and surgical strikes along the LoC against Pakistan and to engage targets on Chinese border. Drones are also the most effective means for surveillance of Line of Actual Control(LAC), Bay of Bengal, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arabian Sea and the Maldivian waters .Drones are also challenging the utility and effectiveness of border fencing along the Indo-Pak border, specially in Punjab by introducing the aerial element in clandestine supply of narcotics, weapons and explosives.

During the 2020 standoff with China in Eastern Ladakh India had taken on lease four latest generation Heron II drones from Israel . It also leased MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones, manufactured by General Atomics. The two have completed 10000 hours of flying and have carried out surveillance of 14 million sq miles. These drones have range of 6000 nautical miles and carry a payload of 2000 kgs. It has an endurance of 40 hours. In 2019 the Trump administration had approved the sale of Predator drones to India, the first country outside NATO to have received this offer.

India has made cogent moves to acquire a fleet of Predator drones. Also, the acquisition of  30 MQ-9 Reaper drones worth $3 billion (24,500cr)  is in advance stage. These drones as and when acquired will be distributed equally amongst the three services. This in fact would be the first tri-service purchase.

The General Atomics of the US has tied up with Bharat Forge to produce landing gear components, sub assemblies for Predator drones. This will significantly contribute to the enhancement of the eco system for manufacture of drones. India has not lost out on the lessons of Azerbaijan war wherein the Armenian forces were found to be defenseless against Turkish drones.

India’s DRDOs in the final stages of development of its indigenous drone RUSTOM II, also known as TAPAS(Tactical Airborne. Platform for Surveillance Past Horizon). Significantly, RUSTOM drones will use Indian GPS GAGAN ( GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation) developed by ISRO. RUSTOM can be controlled up to 100 km away via line of sight system and beyond that by SATCOM. It can carry payloads up to 350 kgs. With its array of sensors it is capable of monitoring at least 250 km inside enemy territory. It is equipped with artificial aperture radar, digital intelligence programs and situational awareness programs. RUSTOM II will eventually replace Heron/ Searcher UAVs in service with the armed forces.

The TAPAS is pre-designed to carry certain weapon systems like anti,- tank missiles. In the trials held in March 2022 TAPAS  reached an altitude of 27, 500 feet and demonstrated an endurance of 18 hours. Significantly, this drone has night landing capability as well.

RUSTOM II or TAPAS embodies Atmnirbhar Bharat in the realm of platforms, weapon systems, electronics and space. There is a proposal under deliberation for  manufacture of Heron II drones in India. Negotiations are also underway between India and Israel  to weaponise  the Heron II and Searcher fleet with Indian produced precision guided munitions, under Project Cheetah. Infantry battalions of the Indian Army have been equipped Quadcopters jointly produced by DRDO and a private firm. In January 2021 the Indian Army entered into a $ 20 million deal with a private firm ideaForge for acquisition of SWITCH tactical drones which can carry surveillance up to 15 km, at operating altitude of 1000 m.


The overall picture in India with regard to consciousness and enthusiasm to dovetail UAVs in the security paradigm is noteworthy. The private sector is as enthusiastic as the public sector in the development of the UAV systems and its application on and off the battlefield. If the momentum sustains , there is no doubt that India will be one of the formidable nations in terms of UAV innovation, research, development and application.


By RSN Singh

Comments are closed here.