Drones and aerial combat: Where India fits in

By Varun Arni

India is falling behind in the latest arms race, for military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  Several other nations have built up significant capability in recent years, and have even started monetizing their expertise in a marketplace set to be worth upwards of $90bn over the next decade.  With drones representing the next step in aerial warfare, it is worth examining our current UAV efforts and where this leaves manned aircraft and air forces.

Drones have become indispensable largely on account of their advanced surveillance/reconnaissance  abilities, long loiter times (some can stay aloft for nearly two days), elimination of pilot risk, repeatability, low detectability and low cost.  The technology and expertise has also become more accessible in recent years, meaning around 90 countries countries currently employ them, with 20 of these possessing armed varieties.

India’s own government agencies have also been quietly developing drones and remotely piloted vehicles since the 1970s.  The DRDO has produced a number of small target and reconnaissance drones (like the Lakshya and Nishant) since then, while the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) have also gotten in on the act, focusing on even smaller Micro Air Vehicles (such as the Imperial Eagle and Black Kite), which give soldiers ‘over the hill’ awareness.  The Rustom series currently in development is set to debut larger and more advanced armed and reconnaissance drones with extended endurances.

In our forces, indigenous drones operate alongside Israeli models such as the IAI Heron (reconnaissance) and Harpy/Harop kamikaze drones – self-destructing models designed to take out enemy radar.

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Israel currently supplies India with IAI Harop kamikaze drones

Israel is currently the dominant force in UAVs, accounting for 40 percent of the world market.  Their expertise was first demonstrated during the 1982 Bekaa Valley Conflict, when Israeli UAVs tricked Syrian forces into launching their armament of surface to air missiles whilst providing real-time battlefield intelligence and guiding Israeli missiles to their targets.  This was a pivotal moment, convincing the world of the potential, and utility of UAVs.

Since then, the USA has championed the use of armed strike drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  In addition to these countries, the UK, Russia, China and Iran have all shown themselves capable of manufacturing armed drones.  The latter has built a number of models having gained knowledge from downed US UAVs.

Given their aptitude for reverse engineering, Chinese UAVs largely ape those from the US: in the case of the Wing Loong(Pterodactyl) that means a Predator-style aircraft with advanced reconnaissance tech and ground strike capability.  While range or refinement may not be on par with US models, that is of little consequence when the cost of entry to this club is 1/30th the US price.  Consequently, a number of other countries have voiced their interest, which could launch China as the go-to place for armed UAVs.

The vast majority of drones currently in service around the world would stand little chance against a conventional manned combat aircraft.  But as their abilities grow, future wars between equally matched opponents would call for an entirely new class of drone: advanced unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).  The DRDO is already working on a UCAV project, the AURA, amongst its other programs.

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BAe Taranis: The shape of future combat UAVs

While UCAVs might be the future of aerial combat, it will be some time before they fully supplant manned fighters in countries’ Air Forces.  In this regard, it is worthwhile assessing our neighbours’ forthcoming manned aircraft.

China manufactures a number of indigenous fighters and is working on two separate advanced 5G fighter programs.  India is covering the highly advanced 5G base with the Sukhoi T50 PAK/FGFA joint development program with Russia, although it will be atleast 5-10 years before these are inducted into Indian fleets. This means that from a force projection point of view, India is losing the game to China, and since China supplies Pakistan with fighter aircraft, 5G access might not be far away for them either. This puts India’s aging and crash-prone airforce as a major area of concern.  Compounding this, the protracted MMRCA consternations have left India ever more exposed, leaving the Sukhoi T30 MKI as the only capable fighter in our fleets.

Costs are another issue: since the Dassault Rafale was selected as the MMRCA winner, unit costs have doubled.  Compounding this, noises are already being made about the shared development cost of the T50.  Ironically the only source of advanced aircraft at comfortable price points is the Chinese, though they are unlikely to cede an technological advantage to us, given our desires of rivaling them as a regional economic and manufacturing stronghold.

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India is jointly developing the Sukhoi PAK FA 5th generation fighter aircraft with Russia

Moving back to UAVs, another route would be through technology sharing collaborations with countries such as Israel, Russia or the US.  However, such an approach doesn’t guarantee that India play to its strengths of software development, radar tech, cheap labour and manufacture.  Nor is there any guarantee that such an approach will be cheap: a situation currently being played out with Russia and the aforementioned joint development program of the Sukhoi T-50.

Even as our government agencies make steady progress, bolstering this with the private sector should be seen as an imperative. The worldwide UAV market is set to explode over the next decade and opening up access to this lucrative world market can only be a plus.  This would also mean our government can hedge its bets with its own captive programs.

Varun Arni is a researcher at the Takshashila Institution.

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