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Must build up Combat Drone Arsenal

Employment of Drones for offensive operations, is a revolution in military concept and strategy that is currently emerging in the armed forces across the globe

Issue: 06-2021By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By USAF

In the recent past, the nation has faced a daunting military challenge in Eastern Ladakh on account of transgression across the Line of Actual Control by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. While the situation has been brought under control through matching response on the ground by the Indian Army, efforts are on to diffuse the tension and reestablish normalcy by means of dialogue at both political and military levels. While this process needs to be sustained and moved further forward, from the point of view of countering the potential threat from China and maintaining military equation with the hostile neighbour in the long term, there is no room for complacency for the Indian armed forces. There is thus an urgent need to review the existing capability of the Indian armed forces as well as plans for the future to cope with an allout war with China even though the possibility of this happening may appear somewhat remote at this point in time.

In a military conflict with China, India’s air power will certainly have a predominant role to play. While the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been making sustained efforts to keep its operational capability fully geared up at all times to meet with the challenges of the evolving strategic and tactical scenario in the region, the high cost of new generation combat aircraft and associated weapon systems, is turning out to be a factor that limits the number of combat aircraft and weapon systems that can be acquired as against what is needed by the IAF which is even more than currently authorised by the Government of India. In this respect, a case in point is the disturbing failure of the IAF in its attempt over a decade and a half to revamp its fleet of combat aircraft through the induction of 126 Rafale fighter jets, a combat platform of the fourth-plus generation from Dassault Aviation of France.

Such a situation ultimately impinges severely on the operational capability of the IAF and in turn on national security. The problem of high cost can be addressed to a large extent by induction of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) also known as “Drones” that are now emerging as platforms endowed with lethal combat capability. Induction of a fleet of combat-capable Drones can enhance the offensive air power of the IAF at markedly lower cost as compared with conventional manned combat platforms. Employment of Combat Drones for offensive operations deep inside enemy territory, can thus be regarded as a revolution in military concept and strategy that is currently emerging in the armed forces of several nations across the globe. Even a small nation like Pakistan has clearly demonstrated this by way of the successful attack on targets at two locations inside Air Force Station, Jammu past midnight on June 27 this year. With the rate at which this concept is developing and is being adopted by the armed forces of nations, its future certainly appears to be highly promising. It is time that the Indian armed forces seriously consider induction of large fleets of Combat Drones to have the capability to take on China.

India has huge land borders with both China and Pakistan. India’s relationship with both these inimical neighbours have been turbulent over the years for a variety of reasons and the prospects of restoring healthy relationship with both, appears to be well beyond the realm of possibility. While India is in a position to handle military aerial threat from Pakistan, the situation with China is more challenging given the fact that the fleet of combat aircraft of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is more than three times the size of that with the IAF. Induction of a large fleet of Combat Drones will reduce the disparity considerably. Combat Drones armed with an explosive payload and missiles, are capable of stealthy penetration into the air space of the enemy. These platforms are equipped with advanced navigation systems and during war, these vehicles have the capability to engage targets with bombs and missiles over land, sea or in the air, both by day and night. If required, this platform can also be programmed to carry out suicidal missions by crashing into the target with full bomb load as demonstrated by Pakistan. These combat platforms can be deployed on missions during peacetime too as they can be programmed to carry out Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions as well.

Induction of UAVs by the Indian armed forces commenced in 1966 and the first unmanned platform to be inducted was the Searcher Mk I from Israel Aerospace Industries. It is only recently that the Indian armed forces have made some headway in procurement of Combat Drones from the United States. What should be a matter of concern is that in the domain of Combat Drones, China is far ahead as it has a sophisticated range of these platforms. China has also invested heavily in anti-drone technology. In the final analysis, there is an urgent need for the Indian armed forces to embark on building up a sizeable and effective arsenal of Combat Drones especially to take on China.