An unmanned battlefield awaits India

Maj Gen Sudhakar Jee, VSM

The war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 was indisputable proof of the strategic advantage provided by armed drones in the hands of militaries. The Drone strikes by Azerbaijan targeting Armenian troops tilted the balance of the war in favor of the Turkey-backed country.

Turkey has sold its Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, costing around $5 million, to countries like Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Qatar, and Libya so far while many are making a beeline including Pakistan. Turkey’s ascent as a drone-manufacturing giant has coincided with its increasing self-sufficiency in defense production, which was necessitated by the sheer number of sanctions and embargoes faced by Ankara.

The US was the first country to use Predator armed drones in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks while other major players in the drone market are Israel, Turkey, and China. The procedure of procuring armed Predator and Reaper drones in the United States is still lengthy and convoluted due to congressional and military control while the Chinese are offering CH-4 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) off the shelf.

Pakistan Racing Ahead

Pakistan earned the distinction of being the fourth country in the world after the US, UK, and Israel to have successfully deployed UCAV in an active operation in 2015 wherein the Pakistan military claimed to have eliminated three high-profile Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists using its indigenous Burraq combat drone during an operation in North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley.

The June 27, 2021 attack on India’s Jammu airbase marked the first instance of drones being used to target military installations in India, allegedly by Pakistani non-state actors ringing alarm bells in India’s security establishment.

Pakistan Navy is already operating several UAVs for surveillance such as the Scan Eagle and Uqab. Its Navy, reportedly, has inducted new Spy Planes in recent times that can ‘track and hunt down’ Indian Submarines. Pakistan has also acquired CH-4 and Wing Long UCAVs from China and has signed a deal with Turkey for the co-production of “Anka” UCAV in 2021. Turkish company Zyrone Dynamics is expected to deliver nearly 100 Zyrone drones to Pakistan by the end of 2022.

The National Engineering and Scientific Commission collaborated with the Pakistan Airforce to develop the Burraq, based on the design of Predator and Chinese CH-3 Rainbow. The Shahpar is another indigenous tactical UAV in Pakistan’s inventory. It can cruise at 150 kilometers per hour and boasts over seven hours of operational endurance. Its latest version, Shahpar II is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone with an endurance of 14 hours and can operate at altitudes of 20,000 ft. The “Satuma Jasoos II” is another indigenous drone in Pakistan’s inventory fulfilling dual purposes of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), and training. It also boasts to have the Selex Galileo from Italy, the CH-4 from China, and the AAI RQ-7 Shadow from America in its arsenal. Moreover, Pakistan is also known to have acquired 50 Wing Loong II armed drones from China.

Dragon’s Drone Power

Rivaling Turkey in the attack drone capabilities is China, which is fast gaining a major chunk of the global drone market. China has been exporting its models CH-4 and Wing Loong I, and now Wing Loong II to many countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. China is also arming Pakistan with advanced attack drones and is reportedly negotiating on joint production of some models.

Janes Defense had recently reported that Islamabad has received five CAI Hong 4 MALE UAVs from Beijing. The CAI Hong 4s are potent drone, which has been used against Houthi rebels by Saudi forces during the conflict in Yemen.

India’s Preparedness

Both China and Pakistan are bolstering their unmanned attack capabilities, while India is preparing to lease the US and Israeli armed drones to boost its capability at the borders. India, so far, has employed only Searcher and Harop drones from Israel for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

India has expressed serious concerns about China arming its neighbors with a range of weapons, which include weaponized unmanned aircraft. India itself having signed two key pacts with the US – COMCASA in 2018 and BECA in 2020 – is in a position to lease or buy advanced attack drones from the US.

India’s indigenously developed medium-altitude long-endurance drone Rustom-2 was being tested in 2021 after many shortcomings were overcome by the scientists at DRDO. HAL is also working on a prototype modeled on the US project – Skyborg, under which multiple unmanned aircraft and vehicles have teamed up with manned jets. These drones are expected to operate alongside fighters such as LCA Tejas and Rafael to boost the effectiveness of these planes.

Indian Army successfully demonstrated a swarm of 75 UCAVs which automatically identified targets and eliminated them in a kamikaze-style attack during a live demonstration held during Army Day 2021. The homegrown stealth UCAV codenamed Ghatak is still under development and details are classified. A full-scale prototype is likely to be rolled out in 2024-25.

India also has procured two Sea Guardians from the US under an emergency procurement lease. Impressed with its performance, the Indian Armed Forces are looking to induct 30 MQ-9 Reaper or Predator B UCAVs as part of a $3 billion tri-services contract. India has also expanded its “Harop” fleet and is reportedly operating 164 of these Israeli kamikaze drones.

The Indian embassy in Turkey tweeted on August 18, 2021, and hinted at a “new beginning”. On the sidelines of the International Defense Industries Fair (IDEF) in Istanbul, DCM Shriram signed a partnership agreement with Zyrone Dynamics of Turkey.

India is also acquiring new advanced Heron drones on lease from Israel to keep an eye on the activities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. The new fleet will have more capabilities in terms of anti-jamming capabilities and weapons, reports indicate.

However, analysts believe India is lagging behind in terms of indigenously-developed UCAVs. None of its proposed domestic combat drone projects like the Rustom-2 or Ghatak are currently operational.

Pakistan made its Burraq combat drone operational in 2015 and battle-tested it. On the other hand, India will be rolling out the first indigenous combat system in 2025. Simple mathematics highlights a decade of asymmetry when it comes to this technology. This is in the context of modern-day non-contact warfare highlights a significant shortfall on India’s end.

It’s time for the elephant to move swiftly.

(Maj Gen (Rtd.) Sudhakar Jee, VSM is a former colonel of the Mahar Regiment. He has commanded troops in varied terrains, climates, and conflict zones. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral thesis on the India-China border dispute, and delivers talks on the ‘Regional Security Perspective of India’.)

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