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Tailless bombers

Hostile Indian borders and the need of UCAVS

The recent experience with China along the Line of Actual Control in the Ladakh sector has brought to the fore the need for unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) that will put an end to the perennial crib about the absence of adequate infrastructure in the high Himalayas.

Our road building projects are believed to be about three years behind schedule because of difficulties in rock-cutting and bridge-building. The policy of “benign neglect” has been replaced with “fast forward” but realities on the ground have made it necessary for India to examine other means of delivering precision guided munitions or area-saturation artillery that can cross the Himalayan hump and “show presence” at points where it is least expected.

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles appear to be the answer but India’s Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) is still two years away from its planned first flight which is scheduled for 2015 and seven years away from induction into operations (2020).

Even as the prospect of not having enough firepower at crucial points along the Line of Actual Control stares us in the face, the other, more embarrassing, fact is that Indian border guards be they the Indian Army, the now much-maligned Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the newly-raised Sikkim Scouts, etc. do not have the facility to look beyond the horizon and see what China is preparing to do and thus be forewarned against the kind of deep penetration that the Chinese executed in the area south of Daulat Beg Oldi.

Challenges

Although we are supposed to have about 400 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance and reconnaissance and early warning, this incident has shown the huge loopholes in our defences.

India has a mix of indigenous and Israeli UAVs but what happened in Ladakh has underscored that for the kind of terrain that exists in the Himalayas local commanders need something that is easy to launch and recover.

The Indian Nishant, for instance, requires a rail-launcher from a hydropneumatic platform based on the Tatra truck. If the truck cannot cross the Himalayas because there are no roads then the Nishant is useless where it is most needed. Most of the Israeli-supplied UAVs require a runway, short and unprepared maybe but still a long stretch of land is required to launch and recover the vehicle.

Going by what happened in Ladakh Indian security guards (irrespective of the uniform they wear) need to have a UAV with a minimum range of 20 km and a service ceiling of about 1000 ft so as to be out of reach of ground-based hand-held rifles and medium machine guns.

The sensors should include imaging infra-red and daylight sensors for night and day search and surveillance. It should be hand-launched and parachute recoverable.

Ideal would be the kind of quadro-rotor helicopter that drew attention after it participated in a movie and DRDO showcased it during Defexpo. Much depends on the payload-it should have day/night sensors to pick up human body heat, expose their positions in real time through datalink to the commander in his bunker which he would be sharing with the remote control handler.

While what was shown was a somewhat frail version, it should be possible to create an upscaled model using ultralight materials, powerful enough to carry a payload of cameras and sensors of about 100 kg in weight.

Even as work is going on in laboratories on Rustam, Pawan, Gagan and AURA, special facilities should be set up to create a UAV that will enable the local commanders, posted all along the Himalayas, more particularly in segments where China has conducted more than 300 incursion, to accost intruders and tell them that they are entering Indian territory.

If there is adamancy on their part then adequate steps for graduated enhancement of hostilities should be in place as well.

The Chinese who intruded into the Ladakh sector brought with them military dogs that are intended to be shooed at Indian soldiers so as to avoid the kind of hand-to-hand combat that led to the dismemberment of a Chinese soldier at Nathu La in Sikkim in 1967.

Indian troops too should field ferocious fighting dogs as their first line of defence so that the kind of humiliating situations do not recur. The sense of smell and sight of the dog is quite superior and it should be used to full advantage.

However, the point at issue is to first be able to gauge the intention of the Chinese commander as soon as he tries to plan an intrusion. This can only happen with an eye in the sky.

In the constant refrain about network centric warfare clearly where it is most needed-the commander to the shooter-is just not available otherwise no one should have been so clueless as not to know how deep the intrusion was. It ranged from 9 to 19 kms within the span of three weeks that the crisis lasted.

Indian UAV programs

India is said to have four different versions of Israeli UAVs of the Harpy, Heron and Searcher class. It has one indigenous platform the Nishant and is working on several different sizes and capabilities in the Rustom I and II, the Pavan, the Gagan, the AURA and the Netra which is the flying quadro-rotary vertical lift platform.

If the frailty of the Netra, its payload capacity and its range can be improved it would be the ideal UAV for deployment not only in the mountainous terrain but it could prove to be immensely useful in the forests where the Maoists hold sway.

A great deal of attention is focused on the Rustam-H and the Aura. The latter has borrowed flying-W hind end configuration of the American Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bomber. It is also described variously as the “flying wing” and “tailless bomber”.

The Indian scientist working on the project make no bones to acknowledge that the design is proven and the stealth characteristics woven into the fuselage ensures that enemy radar emissions intended to scan and track this kind of aircraft are scattered in all directions except back to the transmitting radar.

Because the emissions do not return to the radar array it does not “see” the aircraft and hence is “invisible”. Nonetheless it is a complicated process of creation of a stealth aircraft and the whole package should eventually live up to being aerodynamically correct to fly and manoeuvre in midair.

The Aeronautical Development Agency, which is working on the AURA has revealed that it will be autonomous as different from guided onto its target by a controller working on a console and twiddling toggles. Powered by a turbofan it will be capable of carrying missiles, bombs and precision-guided standoff munitions.

It goes without saying that a great deal of composite materials will be employed to ensure a favourable thrust to weight ratio and enable it to perform its tasks-surveillance, reconnaissance, signal intelligence and electronics intelligence-while being able to identify and engage enemy troops and armour concentrations.

The US Predator has inspired designers all around the globe to create weapons platforms that fly half-way round the globe and hit one individual in a house. The Predator drone has been accused of large collateral damage in women and children. True enough.

But it is also true that it got its man in more than 80 per cent of the strikes conducted against Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. The only one who is known to have got away is the current leader of the Al Qaeda-Ayman Al-Zawahiri. But the drone did hit the house in which now the world’s most wanted man after Osama bin Laden’s demise had held a meeting a few minutes before.