There has been a mad rush for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over the past decade or so but it does not seem to have ameliorated India’s security problem in any way. India has the Chinese walking in and out of its territory, smashing static cameras and returning the pieces with their complements.
The Pakistanis made another of their myriad attempts to infiltrate across the Line of Control, “many were killed” was the claim by the Indian Army but not one body was shown as evidence gathered either by static/handheld cameras or UAVs if for no other reason than to create a compendium of information of methodology or ingress and egress that can be countered in the future.
The Maoists, once again, executed a successful ambush in territory that from the road is wide open agricultural land where hiding would require high guerrilla skills. They killed more than a dozen security personnel and to add insult to injury made away with their weapons. The UAVs that India has bought made no difference at all in each of the abovementioned instances.
These incidents beg the questions: Where are the UAVs? Are they intrinsically useless in a low-intensity conflict situation? Are they of any use at all in India’s particular security milieu given that it is in the throes of a ‘two-and-a-half’ war?
The locale where the UAVs are expected to be deployed need to be examined, for the quality of bird’s eye view that can be obtained. It is clear that the presence of foliage is a disadvantage in that the sensors on board the UAV are unable to distinguish warm flesh from among the cold chlorophyll of the trees and shrubs.
If that be the case the Defence Research and Development Organisation should accelerate by every means, including public-private participation, joint venture and commercial off the shelf (COTS) acquisition, to secure sensors that will distinguish between foliage and human presence through the use of infra-red or thermal imaging techniques and forewarn security forces about the presence or passage of human beings. This is what is required along the Line of Control where terrain is admittedly treacherous and in the heartland where the Maoists operate with such finesse.
An eye-in-the-sky is only as good as the people who operate it and know what to look for. An infiltration across the Line of Control cannot happen without certain movement on the Pakistani side. The UAV should be a trigger for countermeasures when certain movement is too close to the barbed wire fence.
These must include a reception party for the intruders instead of allowing them clear passage as happened recently into the inhabited area where they killed two persons, hijacked the vehicle and were stopped only at the gate of an army cantonment. These spectacular events, no matter how widespread they are in time, are intended to show up the Indian security forces as being incompetent and unable to defend Kashmir against a determined enemy. This is psychological warfare which is as important as shooting events in the overall picture of counter-insurgency operations.
This puts an important question that whether Indian military forces have enough UAVs to deal with the multifarious threats confronting the nation. The Indian Army has acquired a hundred Israeli UAVs and is preparing to receive another one hundred of the Searcher II. All three-Army, Navy, Air Force-Services have acquired the Israeli equipment along with a pitiably miniscule numbers of indigenously created UAVs from the DRDO stable.
One of several UAV projects undertaken by the defence behemoth is the Nishant which is designed and manufactured by the Aeronautics Development Agency affiliated to the DRDO. About a dozen were purchased by the Army and it was used in combat for the first time to identify the locations where the Pakistani troops had set up ‘sanghars’ (stone shelters) after intruding into the Kargil sector in 1999. Still, it took more than two months to clear the intruders out because the high-trajectory guns it was guiding to their targets were finding it difficult to operate in the mountain conditions as the crew innovatively used their weapons as direct fire weapons to great effect.
A reading of the characteristics of the Nishant underlines its inadequacies. For one, with the intention of obviating the need for long runways for takeoff the ADA had designed the UAV to be fired from rails mounted on a Tatra truck. The launch vehicle weighs 16 tons. The weight of the Nishant is 380kg and the payload it can carry is just 45 kg to deal with tasks like electronic intelligence collection, signals intelligence, artillery fire control, and reconnaissance and surveillance.
But it has the great disadvantage of having an endurance or staying aloft of only 4-and-a-half hours. In a battlefield situation what is required is at least 12-hour surveillance with attendant reports to battalion HQs in the first instance and General HQ in Delhi in sequence. The Army has acquired 15 Nishants in the first order. It means that to do a 12 hour stint it will require three UAVs and it is a 24-hour job. Another infirmity the Nishant suffers is that it has a foreign engine. ADE has developed an indigenous Wankel engine to replace it.
This is one of the reasons why the Indian Army bought 100 Searcher II in the first installment from Israel and ordered 100 more in the second tranche. Many have arrived but are Indians any safer? One of the recent infiltrations was conducted across the International Border in north Punjab –which is understandable given that it was not snowbound at the time and the attack was in Jammu and Kashmir which was suffering biting chill at the time. If these things are to happen with such sickening regularity (and worse is expected when US-led International Security Assistance Force leaves Afghanistan by the end of the year) one begins to wonder whether India is prepared for the promised deluge of jihadi terrorists.
It is stated that the Army has deployed 25 of Searcher-IIs it has obtained from Israel on the borders with India and Pakistan. Where exactly has not been mentioned but it should obviously be on the Line of Control but the intrusions are continuing. It can stay aloft for 16 hours and can carry a load of 316 kg. Among other UAVs it has obtained from Israel are 15 Harpy fire and forget anti-radar drones that are stated to be highly accurate. The Indian Navy has bought the Heron which is a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) which has an endurance of more than 50 hours and can carry 250 kg of sensors. The Indian Navy has also bought the same because of its endurance.
Even as these purchases are being made the DRDO is working on several different types of indigenous UAVs apart from the Nishant. The Rustam H has the admirable ability to stay aloft at 35 kms for 24 hours at distances of up to 250 km. A rotary winged drone based on the Dhruv helicopter is under development.
Among the mini-UAVs the Netra has been widely publicized and it was promised that it would be deployed against the Maoists. However, there was no evidence that it was deployed when the ambush in mid-March near Chhattisgarh was executed.
India should utilize the UAVs to its maximum potential especially for the low intensity warfare.