Unmanned Combat Systems: Arrived and Here to Stay

Technology is a double-edged sword and its end-use defines it as a boon or a bane  

By Lt. Gen Anil Kapoor

Unmanned Autonomous Systems (UAS) made a foray into our lives with the advent of robots during the second industrial revolution and have since proliferated into industrial smart additive manufacturing, logistics and supply chains, hazardous operations, nuclear power plants, and precision surgery.

Unmanned Ground Systems, Unmanned Ships, and Unmanned Aerial Autonomous Systems or drones have disrupted every industry including defense applications.

Together, the drones along with their twin unmanned ground-based systems or robots, have revolutionized supply chain, logistics support, robot-based smart manufacturing and surgery among other commercial applications, and disrupted military affairs – the bigger lesson is that UAS have arrived and are there to stay.

UAS Threat Scenario  

Consider a contingency of an unmanned system in a seeker shooter mode, totally autonomous, with a swarm of aerial and ground-based vectors planning an operation in the hinterland.

Over the past decade, technology has given shape to an age-old product adage, ‘whatever can be defined, can be designed’, albeit in a shorter time frame, both in intent, context, and content, given the unprecedented technological disruption.

UAS manifestation of the technology outreach whether obtrusively or unobtrusively, conventional or unconventional, by kinetic and non-kinetic means, 3D printed or on an assembly line, deployed by state forces or non-state actors, will remain instruments for quick deployment.

Disruption in Military Affairs 

The Revolution in Military Affairs so pronounced during the Gulf Wars, was driven by war scenes being witnessed in the living rooms relayed from the battlefield. But that was based on the technological revolution of the 1990s through Y2K. Both, the technology driving the revolution and the nature of warfare have undergone significant changes, since then, over the past two decades.

Powered by digital transformation, the UAS-based tech world order is defined by the robotic digital warrior, popularly known as humanoid, and niche disruptive technologies which impact the entire bandwidth of military activities be it info gathering, intelligence, recce, surveillance, defensive and offensive operations transcending space, time and endurance, logistics and supply chain, decision support, control of resources both for defensive and offensive operations.

Further, the spectrum of conflict has enhanced from land, sea, and air to cyber, space, psychological, and hybrid.

In an overall analysis, disruptive technologies, with or without a man in the loop, is about enhancing the velocity of the OODA loop, as the driver of decisive proactive actions while suffering minimal human casualties.

The DiMA has ushered an era with the concept that “Victory is measured by Digital Unmanned Footprint”, for all those of us who would still like to believe that ‘Victory is measured by the Foot’.

UAS Driven Combat 

An apt example of a decisive war through technology is the Armenian -Azerbaijan War. It is, in effect, the first war in the history of modern warfare that has been won almost entirely on the strength of drone warfare.

It is no brainer then, that the Armenian force and Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic Armenians, who had been living in the disputed region, lost their assets miserably while Azerbaijan’s losses were only one-sixth. The lethality of UAS is unparalleled in man vs machine warfare.

Drones have been deployed extensively by both Russia and Ukraine to locate targets, direct and guide artillery fire on them, and deployment of Kamikaze drones.

Moreover, Russia claims that Poseidon underwater drone, known as Status-6 is basically a very large, nuclear-powered autonomous torpedo armed with a nuclear warhead and capable of creating a major destructive Tsunami effect. The United States claims a competitor named, “Kanyon”.

AI platforms are being used to configure ground-based unmanned systems (robots), aerial unmanned systems, and both sea-based and under-water/submersible unmanned systems and hybrid systems like ground and aerial swarms and loiter ammunitions. These technologies are game changers in future warfare and a paradigm shift from automation (business intelligence) to autonomous systems, thereby graduating to Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS).

UAS and China

China is the largest supplier of commercial drones, and it has embarked in the arena of military drones from micro to mega High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE), MALE drones powered by AI for autonomous operations carrying lethal payloads, surveillance payloads, and logistics loads.

China is also known to be developing robot humanoids for multiple employment and deployment scenarios.

Challenges Ahead

Unmanned Autonomous Systems have also become a weapon of choice by non-state actors and that is where the threat scenario becomes discomforting and of absolute concern. Other than a kinetic kill of UAAS which is a challenge, this threat a potent countermeasure is a non-kinetic neutralization through jamming which triggers a return to home command, thus exposing the point of launch.

The following actions need to be institutionalized:

Consortium Approach 

A consortium approach to attempt the proliferation of UAS and anti-UAS technologies is the need of the hour. There is a dire need to create collaborative programs, structures, and policies comprising academia, R&D Organizations, Start Ups, Tier 1, 2, and 3, and Tri-Service institutions for creating myriad solutions to the myriad of problems.

Aatmanirbhar Bharat Impact

UAS has huge bandwidth for dual use. From the Indian perspective, Aatmanirbhar Bharat and Make in India Missions need to specialize and strategize use cases – prototype, mass produce, and proliferated for military and civil use. The industry needs to scale up to the huge local need and the immense export potential.

Rule of Law

Drone Laws 2021 in India have been formulated to include weight, payload, and height restrictions, but these have to be enforced and dynamically improved to make them justifiable and effective. Mechanisms to detect and track down defaulters must be put in place and dealt with severely by appropriate punitive actions.


The Unmanned Autonomous Systems are there to stay, deploy, deter, dissuade, destroy and disrupt. There is a school that professes that military drones are the poor man’s fighter aircraft and as a swarm could prove to be as lethal, if not more. There is also a need to analyze and prepare for the threats with all their contingencies.

In fact, UAS and anti-UAS are no longer a choice but a compulsion for future combat readiness and operational effectiveness – be it conventional, unconventional, hybrid, or technology sovereignty.

And, an Aatmanirbhar Bharat with a focus on Make in India, Start-up India, with innovative leadership for economic development is the need of the hour.

Lt Gen Anil Kapoor, AVSM, VSM superannuated from the Indian Army as Director General Electronics and Mechanical Engineering (DGEME) and Director General  Information Systems (DGIS).  He is an expert in Radars, Guided Missiles, MRO asset management, and condition-based monitoring of assets. He is now a Professor of Practice at IIT, Tirupati.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times 

Images courtesy of (Image: Aviation Today) and Provided

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