UAVs are a critical combat multiplier which are rapidly becoming an organic necessity for all modern armies
Information is an element of combat power and a combat multiplier in the hands of a commander. Field commanders require an organic, responsive, economically viable, multi- source, long endurance, near real-time reconnaissance capability to collect, process and report intelligence throughout the level of conflict. Additionally, commanders need ability to obtain data from anywhere within enemy territory, day and night (24×7), regardless of weather. The answer lies in the use of UAVs, with their inherent characteristics to provide the flexibility to operate in the extended battle space, thereby enabling the ground forces to see first, understand first, act first and finish decisively. UAVs are remotely piloted or self piloted aircraft that can carry cameras, sensors, communication equipment or other payloads. They have been used in the reconnaissance and intelligence gathering role from 1950s; and more challenging roles are envisaged including combat missions. Unmanned vehicles are not impeded by restraints imposed on manned systems, where both the aircraft and crew could be lost. In fact, they are increasingly being employed for missions that were hitherto the domain of manned aircraft. The UAVs today are also providing exclusive capability to forces engaged in sub-conventional operations, especially in the global war on terrorism — in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Current technologies make today’s UAVs more sophisticated than ever and are expanding their role in support of joint operations. As range, altitude and loiter time increase, UAVs are providing beyond line-of-sight reconnaissance, fires and over watch. This support enables rapid movement, target identification and engagement with enhanced battle damage assessment, making this weapon system a true force multiplier. By extending future battle space coverage, UAVs will provide greater situational awareness that not only enhances force protection and survivability but will also generate greater lethality.
Today, technologically advanced militaries across the world have incorporated UAVs as a new critical and combat enhancing component of their inventory. While Israel and USA have been the pioneers in UAV development, at least 14 other countries are now using/ developing over 76 different types of UAVs for surveillance, target acquisition, electronic warfare, etc.
Current military UAVs perform reconnaissance as well as attack missions. Though ISR missions still remain the predominant roles of UAVs, other areas of employment include electronic attack, strike missions, suppression and/ or destruction of enemy air defence, network node or communications relay and combat search and rescue. The combination of loiter time and layered employment of UAVs provide the critical capability needed to support network centric operations. UAVs are often preferred for missions that are too dull, dirty or dangerous for the manned aircraft. The concept of killer/ hunter UAVs for strike missions is a reality in Afghanistan. The Predator, carrying two ‘hellfire’ missiles has been extensively used by the US Forces for strike missions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. These UAVs are being piloted for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from halfway across the world in Nevada and California, more than 8,000 miles from the killing zone, providing real-time video feeds to troops on ground — these UAVs can stay aloft for more than 20 hours watching a battlefield. However, the vast majority of roughly 1,500 UAVs flying in Iraq and Afghanistan are smaller, controlled by soldiers and marines on the ground. The smallest is the ‘Raven’, about the size of a large model airplane with a wing span of three feet, which is sometimes mistaken for a bird flying high in the sky. The Counter Insurgency/ Counter Terrorist (CI/CT) operations require timely, responsive and accurate intelligence to succeed; and UAV is the best suited weapon platform for this task. UAV is capable of operating in permissive as well as non-permissive (within another country’s sovereign airspace) environment and with a variety of sensors suitable for single or multi-mission operations. The sensor can transmit information based on detection, identification and location of militant groups to intelligence agencies or to surveillance teams. UAVs could also provide support to troops on the ground during operations in terms of real-time image or signal intelligence via a secure downlink. An armed UAV overhead could provide timely, on scene, firepower, a situation regularly being played out in Afghanistan and tribal areas of Pakistan.
Experience of the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and the expertise of the Israeli defence forces of using UAVs in conventional as well as non-conventional operations bring out several valuable lessons which can be suitably exploited in our present CI/ CT environment. Two of the most important of these lessons are ‘Complete Battlefield Dominance’ and ‘Closing Sensor-to-Shooter Loop’. This involves establishing a continuous surveillance grid of an area of interest duly integrated with the forces on the ground fighting CI/ CT operations, thereby establishing a system capable of disseminating this intelligence to more than one user in real-time for its timely and efficient exploitation. The success of Op Geronimo to get Osama bin Laden is clearly illustrative of this factor.
Developments in India
Successful use of UAVs and their combat enhancing potential has generated interest among militaries from across the world. China and Pakistan are adding UAVs of various capabilities to their inventory and have expressed interest in developing and procuring UAVs with enhanced capabilities, including armed versions. During the last couple of years, China has unveiled more than 25 different models of UAVs, prominent among them being the WJ600 combat UAV. The WJ600 is said to be capable of carrying several missiles.
India too has not been left out of the global UAV push, with a major thrust of its armed forces modernisation plans focussing on augmenting their current meagre resources — the Israeli Searcher II and Heron (MALE) UAVs. India has developed a smaller UAV, the Nishant (catapult launch and parachute recovery) which has already entered service with the Army. In addition, India is undertaking a development programme for a UAV in the Heron/ Predator class of MALE UAVs, called the ‘Rustom’ — a 1100– 1300 kg UAV, with a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet and a range of 300 km. The state run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) along with Bharat Electronics is slated to design and build this UAV. However, India’s most prized indigenous drone programme is the development of an Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA). The DRDO has embarked on the development of the AURO Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) which is stated to be a high speed stealth UCAV, capable of autonomously seeking, identifying and destroying targets with missiles, bombs and precision guided munitions. As per DRDO, the first flight is expected in 2015. Although large size UAVs have been UAVs are capable of operating in permissive as well as non-permissive environment and with a variety of sensors suitable for single or multi-mission operations procured by the armed forces, there has been no progress on the micro and mini UAVs including manpack, which are essential for the tactical battle area and CI/ CT operations. While RFPs in this regard were floated by the army some time back, no procurement has been made so far. Reports indicate that the Indian Army is also on the lookout for Miniature UAVs (MAVs), which can evade enemy radar, are easy to handle, can be launched without runways and are also capable of carrying explosives to act as killer drones for small but high value targets. The main aim is to use them for monitoring mountainous terrain, conflict zones and congested urban areas. The MAVs would be very useful in CI/ CT operations in J&K and the North East. The MAVs could weigh as less as 2kg and have an endurance of 30 minutes at a stretch.
The increasing demand and reliance on UAVs in war fighting and peace keeping operations has doubled the pace of UAV related research and development in recent years. UAVs today, with enhanced capabilities, are able to play a greater role in critical missions. Achieving information superiority, minimising collateral damage, fighting effectively in urban areas against widely dispersed forces, striking autonomously and precisely are areas where UAVs will be increasingly indispensable. The three major thrusts in UAV development are growth in size of strategic UAVs for better endurance and payload, reduction in size of tactical UAVs, weaponisation of UAVs to offer lethal capability in combat missions and autonomy — commonly defined as ability of the machine to take decisions without human intervention. Armed forces worldwide are beginning to explore the possibilities offered by unmanned systems as both sensor and weapon platforms. The promise of an autonomous, highly survivable and absolutely fearless UAV will usher in a new paradigm in which the ultimate consideration is no longer the value of pilot’s life, but rather the mission and cost effectiveness of UAVs. The advent of light airborne precision weapons, autonomous target acquisition and recognition technologies will push UAVs towards becoming armed and lethal unmanned platforms. UAVs with the ability to pick out targets and attack autonomously, with persistent presence over areas of interest will come of age in the near future and become indispensable weapons of war for commanders.
The continued development of strategic and tactical UAVs follows the line of employing UAVs as multi-role multi-mission platforms. UAVs will see progressive developments towards both extreme ends of size spectrum. Strategic UAVs will see growth in size for better endurance, reliability and payload capacity, while the mini- and micro- UAVs will grow smaller, lighter and more expendable. The tactical close range platforms will become more versatile with multi-role multi- mission capability. Passive and low signature sensors are essential to boost stealth and survivability of UAVs. Note worthy advances include hyperspectral imaging, laser radar, synthetic aperture radar and moving target indicator.
Increasing demand for better performance and higher reliability will escalate the development and production costs of UAVs. Whether the platform is designed to be even more reliable than an aircraft, depends on its application, the payload it carries, mission pay off and cost effectiveness. It must be appreciated that for strategic high value UAVs to perform as well as manned systems, there will have higher acquisition costs. The development of large size UAVs (fixed wing and rotary) in the cargo carriage role is already underway, with the lead being taken by US companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Some of these systems like Lockheed Martins unmanned K-MAX helicopter have been successfully deployed in Afghanistan to augment Marine Corps ground and air logistics operations — as per available data the performance has been exceptional. As per reports, Sikorsky in cooperation with the US Army has successfully demonstrated optionally piloted flight of a ‘Black Hawk’ helicopter — this is a significant development towards not only providing autonomous cargo delivery capability but also gives the commander the flexibility of launching crewed or un-crewed operations depending on the situation. The navies, the world over, are closely monitoring these developments — rotary UAVs capable of operating from ship decks will be force multipliers.
Technology is driving the military application of UAVs into remarkable areas, with the possibilities seemingly endless. A crucial piece of technology that is required to take UAVs to the next level is a robust ‘sense and avoid’ system allowing unmanned planes to fly safely in a congested airspace. Future UAVs may be able to perform a variety of tasks moving beyond their present roles in ISR and strikes, to re-supply, combat search and rescue, aerial refuelling and air-to-air combat (currently a difficult proposition). While the UAV is an innovative weapon system, but it is not yet capable of replacing the manned aircraft; the main drawbacks being the situational awareness and the ability to analyse its operational environment. The way forward is to integrate manned and unmanned platforms and satellite based sensors in order to attain an integrated operational picture. The future combat arena may well see both the manned aircraft and the UAVs/ UCAVs in complementary roles enhancing the overall combat potential of the force.