Unmanned aircraft technologies have matured well beyond just reconnaissance, security and targeting. Unmanned Aerial Systems are now undertaking a wide range of missions
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are playing a significant role in the face-off between India and China in Ladakh. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to use drones to drop weapons to operatives in India in Punjab as well as in Jammu and Kashmir. World over, drones have been used aggressively for a few decades now. More recently, drones were used to attack Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, to kill Iranian Major General Wasem Soleimani, to attack insurgents in Mali and in the ‘War on Terror’ by the United States (US).
UAS TECHNOLOGIES HAVE MATURED
Unmanned aircraft technologies have matured well beyond just reconnaissance, security and targeting. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are now undertaking a wide range of missions. Solar powered UAS are already flying. There are dual use (optionally manned) aircraft. The US Air Force has already modified combat aircraft such as the F-4s and F-16s to fly them under remote control. For long, the Russians have been using unmanned MiG-21s as targets. In France, Dassault leads a multi-nation project for delta wing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) ‘Neuron’ of the size of the Mirage 2000. The United Kingdom has a Strategic UAS programme ‘Taranis’. UAS such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B, are taking-off and landing by themselves including on moving aircraft carriers. Autonomous inflight refuelling has been tested. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’ looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-pound class weapons. Drones are already delivering supplies to troops deployed on the front lines. Coordinated UAS swarms have been tested by several countries. The UAS vision document of the US Air Force indicates that by the year 2047, every military mission would be unmanned.
UAS MILITARY MISSIONS AND CLASSIFICATION
The UAS could be a fixed-wing aircraft or a rotorcraft. The military missions include ‘target’ for aerial gunnery, ‘decoy’ for enemy missiles, reconnaissance, battlefield intelligence gathering, unmanned aerial combat missions, operational logistics and as platforms for defence research and development. UAS are classified based on weight and on range of operations. ‘Dull’, ‘Dirty’ and ‘Dangerous’ missions are normally assigned to them. Dull means long boring reconnaissance missions; dirty could mean entering a chemical, nuclear, or radioactivity affected area; dangerous missions involve penetrating contested air space or opening corridors for fighters to surge into or targets requiring long-range precision attacks. UAS are also being used for missions such as electronic attack. The UAS swarm could also act as a multi-strike decoy or jam the enemy defences through sheer numbers. UAS will continue to act as an eye-in-thesky and also to mark targets for attack by laser weapons and support to direct fires.
Armed UAS or UCAVs such as the General Atomics Predator and Reaper carry air-toground missiles and have great combat capabilities
MAJOR UAS MANUFACTURERS
UAS already outnumber manned aircraft in US Armed Forces. During theatre level operations in Afghanistan, UAS flew nearly 2,00,000 hours a year. The US is also the lead manufacturer of large and combat UAVs with Israel a close second. China leads in small civil UAVs. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are the world’s leading manufacturers. China’s Chengdu plant makes the Wing Loong series and Guizhou plant makes WZ-2000. IAI’s Harpy, Harop, Searcher and Heron are flying world over in large numbers, including in India. Elbit’s Hermes 450 is an assault UAS. Miniature UAS are being used for visual and audio snooping operating in small confines like rooms or bunkers. Rotary winged UAS (RUAS) such as Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scouts are increasing in numbers. The debate between manned vs unmanned need not be a binary one. Offloading some manned tasks to UAS will help aircrew focus on other critical areas requiring human interface.
AI AND DRONE SWARMS
UAV Swarming involves aerial robots flying synchronously with cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group manoeuvres are possible. The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature, e.g. honeybee swarms. Very small drones – some weighing less than five pounds – can cause devastating effect if they are armed with weapons and flown in a swarm of large numbers. Drone swarms can be both remotely operated or fly autonomously or may accompany ground vehicles and other aircraft.
UAS EVOLVING OPERATIONAL ADVANTAGES
Armed UAS or UCAVs such as the General Atomics Predator and Reaper carry air-to-ground missiles and have great combat capabilities. MQ-1 Predator is armed with Hellfire missiles and is being used as a platform for ground attack. UAS like RQ-9 Reaper are being used to patrol and secure borders. Payloads like synthetic aperture radar can penetrate clouds, rain or fog and by day or night. On the other hand, the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk operates virtually autonomously giving live feedback and only needs a command to ‘Takeoff and Land’. Advances in technology have enabled more capabilities and Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) are being deployed on the battlefield. UAS roles have thus expanded to include strike missions, suppression and/ or destruction of enemy air defence, electronic warfare, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, counter-terrorism and combinations of these. Full-fledged air-to-air combat capability, increased autonomy and UAS-specific munitions are part of the roadmap. UCAV is now a “first day of the war” force enabler which complements a strike package by performing the SEAD missions. They operate at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Costs (LCC) of current manned systems.
Drone detection requires combination of radar, radio frequency (RF), electrooptical (EO), infrared (IR), and acoustic sensors. Interdiction would be through direct bullet firing, jamming RF and GPS signals, spoofing, lasers, cyber-attacks, physical nets to entangle the target, projectiles, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), camouflage and concealment, water projectors, birds of prey or using another drone for direct hit, and combinations of those. Drone counters could be ground or air-based. Drone swarms too have some weaknesses and limitations. The US is now deploying new radars like the Q-53 system that can detect and identify such small objects and then initiate the kill-chain using laser weapons. Cyber solutions to defeat drones are using multi-spectral sensor systems to detect and then using cyber electromagnetic to either disable the drone or physically take over and divert.
INDIAN UAS CAPABILITY
The Indian Armed Forces operate nearly 150 Israeli Heron and Searcher II. The Heron can operate up to maximum 52 hours duration at up to 35,000 ft. The Searcher is a scaled-up variant of the Scout UAV. UAVs are also operating in insurgency prone Jammu and Kashmir to sanitize the border and in remote regions of Ladakh helping incursion management. The Indian Navy is covering the coastline and into the Indian Ocean. The Indian Air Force (IAF) uses them for target lasing, Battle Damage Assessment in addition to ISR functions. In Naxal prone areas, UAS are tracking possible movements and also directing security forces to the targets. India’s National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) also operates UAVs. The IAI Harpy is a loitering munition, designed to attack radar systems. The IAI Harop (Harpy 2) is an anti-radiation loitering drone that can either operate fully autonomously, using its anti-radar homing system or in a human-in-the-loop mode. The IAF has around 160 and have named them P-4. Purchase of the advanced Heron TP variant is under consideration. Two General Atomics Predator drones have been leased by the Indian Navy in November 2020 from the US for extended surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Armed Forces are likely to get 30 Predator drones in the near future, ten for each service.
INDIGENOUS UAS AND WAY AHEAD FOR INDIA
India is conscious of Chinese UCAV like the WZ-2000 and Shenyang’s ‘Dark Sword’. Pakistan has the ‘Burraq’ (Chinese UCAV design) and ‘Shahpar’ surveillance UAS. The Indian DRDO’s UAS ‘Nishant’ with endurance of four hours, can take on intelligence and reconnaissance tasks. DRDO is also developing autonomous stealth UCAV for the IAF named ‘Ghatak’. It will be similar in design to Northrop Grumman ‘B-2 Spirit’ flying-wing and capable of releasing missiles and precision bombs. DRDO’s ‘Rustom’ (TAPAS-BH-201) UAS is meant to replace the Israeli ‘Heron’ in all the three services in the future. A large number of Indian companies showcased small UAVs at the Def Expo 2020 and are getting orders. India has to push ahead in this important operational asset.