Unmanned vehicles

With the success of the Daksh battery-powered remotely controlled robot used for locating, handling and destroying hazardous objects safely, the Defence Research and Development Organisation has ventured into converting an existing mechanized warfare vehicle into an unmanned platform for several different functions.

They range from the now familiar nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) reconnaissance rover designated  Muntra-N, a mine counter-measures platform known as Muntra-M, a Muntra-S for surveillance and a Muntra-B which, unlike its clones will be fully manned and act as base vehicle for the command and control of the other three unmanned platforms.

The Daksh has become a familiar contraption to the Indian public because it has regularly been portrayed as a useful gadget in India’s fight against terrorism. Only 20 have been ordered by the Army so far but given the nature of internal security threats confronting the police of nearly every State of India it should become standard equipment for all of them before long.

Since the police is usually the first responder in urban counter-terrorism operations a facility like the Daksh can give the operator a clear picture of areas where it would be dangerous to tread without proper reconnaissance. The inbuilt ability to see/sense explosives, chemical agents and even hidden terrorists gives the first responders a fair chance of dealing with the situation with the minimum of casualties among the security personnel.

The designers cannot but be aware that just blasting a hole through the locked door cannot be the only use for the on-board shotgun. It will have to engage the terrorist inside almost simultaneously if its deployment is to be used for full effect.

Significant role

Scientists in the DRDO have been experimenting with several remotely controlled, self-propelled gadgets that can deal with the kind of situation that occurred during the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.

Generically they can all be described as unmanned ground vehicles. The roles of some are confined only to reconnaissance and search through dark places to let the first responders become aware of the situation inside a room without exposing themselves to gunfire from hidden shooters.

While the Daksh has a weapon the others are largely unarmed and are intended to unobtrusively survey the landscape and allow the handler to identify the threat and pinpoint the location before follow-on security forces enter the area. Some of these are snake-like with lightweight low-light television cameras attached to both ends and capable of raising their “heads” to look over an obstacle.     

The Muntra (Mission UNmanned TRAcked) family of vehicles takes full advantage of an existing proven platform-the BMP 2 which is the license produced version of a Russian designed  infantry combat vehicle made in Medak in southern India- especially its amphibian capabilities.

The new configuration of a proven vehicle was executed by the Combat Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (CVRDE), a DRDO lab based at Avadi near Chennai.

Among the first to be created was the nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) detection platform. It can sense the presence of these elements and mark out the area of contamination. Field trials are to take place during the summer and one wonders how the nuclear aspect of detection is to be simulated given that there has to be a release of nuclear radiation for the dosimeters on board to record the contamination. DRDO laboratories have made a name for themselves worldwide by producing sensors for biological and chemical agents which they have since commercialized.

Although the BMP infantry combat vehicle has been operational in summer conditions in the Rajasthan desert for several decades, the ability of its new onboard sensors need to be tested out to ensure that they function optimally in their new configuration and are able to detect traces of nuclear, biological and chemical even in extremely hot conditions. Heat in the desert area can rise to up to 50 degrees inside the BMP and it is said that one can fry an egg on the vehicle’s superstructure if it is allowed to stand in the sun for an hour.
Muntra versions

The Muntra-M mine counter-measure vehicle is unique in that while it negates the possibility of a mine being activated by radio control by jamming the signals it is able to destroy a detected mine with the aid of laser beam-the first application of a directed energy weapon in battlefield conditions.

As things stand, the repeat Maoist attack on security forces in Dantewada district, underscores the need for proper protection and new operating procedures in low intensity warfare situations as well. For this the Muntra class of vehicle appears to be ideal. They could prove to be more effective than the current fleet of mine-protected vehicles which have fallen victim to new methods of minelaying used by the Maoists.

The vehicles are suffering major damage because of the heavy load of explosives used by the Maoists to neutralize it. Sometimes as much as 50 kg of explosives are used to hit a vehicle that can only withstand an explosive charge of 15kg.

The use of the Muntra vehicles for internal security duties is further underlined by the capabilities of the Muntra-S which is dedicated to surveillance and battlefield awareness situations.

Its employment and usefulness for military and para-military institutions is a foregone conclusion but the need to revamp internal security is also imperative given the casualties being suffered by the latter. During tests it is reported that the Muntra-S has been tele-operated (wirelessly) in day and night situations from a distance of 5 km and made to conduct surveillance duties across a 15 km radius further ahead. The mission included tracking and keeping under surveillance a tank in battlefield conditions.

All this is done through controls within the Muntra-B (for base) which is fully manned and replete with of the optronics required to maintain contact and control over the Muntra-N, Muntra-M and Muntra-S which are intended to form a consolidated unit.

If the unit is to operate successfully the absolute necessity would be absolutely secure communications between the B vehicle and the N, M and S. If network centricity has any meaning it would most definitely have to be the bedrock on which this unit operates.

Also, going by reports of earlier tests conduct on the system the radar coverage is restricted to a 20 km radius. If the cross-country speed of the BMP vehicle is about 40 kmph it would mean that there would be a need to have a surveillance capability closer to 40 km than 20 km.

It would appear that each unit of four vehicles needs to be within a network spread over 40km for full unity of purpose especially in an NBC environment where dispersal would ensure that not too many fall within “ground zero” in a nuclear strike. This would ensure survivability to a greater degree. One way how this can be achieved is through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to scout for enemy deployment and positioning so that Indian Army units can achieve high combat mobility in a fast paced battle situation.  

It seems that all this is likely to fructify into a fully integrated battlefield system within the next five years.