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UAVs: Flying into the Future

Successful use of UAVs and their invaluable contribution to battlefield surveillance have made them an important part of military services. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) are rapidly becoming the weapon of choice for military forces, thereby revolutionising the face of warfare

Talon240 UAV

The history of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) goes back many decades. Their first prominent use in conflict perhaps was 71 years ago, in World War II during the Gran Sasso raid in September 1943 when gliders were used for Mussolini’s rescue. Since the rescue troops resorted to firing from the air, perhaps it was the very basic form of the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) as well.

But then just 14 years later, the unmanned missions went for Space — Sputnik I and Sputnik II of USSR in October and November 1957, respectively, followed by Explorer I of USA in January 1958. And the race had begun. UAVs have come a long way since then for tasks encompassing communications, surveillance and as weapon platforms. Today, researchers are exploiting wind power to enhance the capabilities of unmanned aircraft, especially small drones so that these gliders can stay aloft for weeks, deployed for communications, surveillance, tracking movement including in the ocean.

The US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California is developing a hand-launched Tactical Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial System (TALEUAS) that needs an electric propeller to get airborne, but having reached a reasonable altitude, it can fly all day just by riding rising currents of warm air thermals. When TALEUAS encounters a thermal, it senses the lift and spirals around to take advantage of it using the same technique that vultures and eagles use. In fact, vultures and eagles have been observed accompanying the TALEUS during flights, acknowledging it as their brood. Interestingly, on some occasions, the birds found that the thermals they were attempting to join it in were too weak for their weight, as the drone is more efficient than they are at gliding.

At present, the endurance of TALEUAS is limited by the power requirements of its electronics and payload, these being battery powered. However, plans are afoot to cover the craft’s wings with solar cells that will generate power during the day, and replace its lithium-polymer battery with a lithium-ion one capable of storing enough energy to last the night. With this, the TALEUAS is expected to stay aloft indefinitely, albeit it still has to depend on locating and riding thermals. To eliminate even that element of chance, researchers are allowing TALEAUS actively seek rising air in places where the hunt is most likely to be propitious in addition to thermals; orographic lift produced by wind blowing over a ridge, and lee waves caused by wind striking mountains. Their software combines several approaches to the search for rising air. It analyses the local landscape for large flat areas that are likely to produce thermals, and for ridges that might generate orographic lift. It also employs cameras to spot cumulus clouds formed by rapidly rising hot air. Such software replicates the behaviour of a skilled sailplane pilot or a vulture/ eagle in knowing where to find rising air and where to avoid downdraughts.

Concurrent to the Taleaus is the ‘robot glider’, virtually an artificial albatross whose development is being looked at by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts, USA. Like its natural counterpart, this artificial bird harnesses wind shear, which is the difference in wind speed at different heights, using a technique called dynamic soaring. The air is quite still near the surface of the sea even when it is blowing powerfully just a few metres above. So an albatross can rise up and face into the wind, gaining height like a kite in a breeze, then turn to glide down in any direction. By repeating this manoeuvre, it can fly thousands of kilometers without flapping its wings, and by tacking it can travel anywhere, regardless of the wind direction, with an average speed six times that of the wind. The ‘Robot Bird’ plans to replicate this. The UCAV is a UAV designed to deliver weapons (attack targets) without an onboard pilot.

Towards autonomous operation
Currently operational UCAVs are under real-time human control, but future versions may enable autonomous operation. US and NATO forces have used UAVs/UCAVs extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, as also there have been numerous Predator UCAV attacks inside Pakistan. At present, Predators are seeking out targets in the Iraq-Syria occupied Islamic Caliphate.

US had developed the reusable space plane X-37B by 2012, but in July 2013, the US Navy made aviation history by successfully landing a highly autonomous drone on an aircraft carrier at sea. The batwing-shaped X-47B (developing and funding having cost an incredible USD 1.4 billion over eight years) executed one of the hardest manoeuvres in aviation, catching the arrested-landing gear on the deck of the USS George HW Bush. Never before had a robot performed such a feat executable only by the best of naval pilots world over. The drone, followed by manned aircraft, flew from a Maryland airstrip on a pre-programmed flight path, once cleared by the landing put its hook down, caught the wire, writing a new chapter in naval history.

Some 70 nations have UAVs/UCAVs of varied sophistication and military applicability, but only US has one the size of an F/A-18 Super Hornet and powered by a jet engine able to take off and land on the deck of a ship. In an earlier flight, the X-47B had taken off from an aircraft carrier and landed on ground. The X-47B is different from the US Predator and Reaper drones. The latter two are not actually pilotless but are remotely controlled through instruments resembling those of a traditional aircraft cockpit. Conversely, the X-47B is pilotless. Its operations occur because of onboard software code that the computer system executes with flight paths pre-programmed. However, in case of malfunction, takeover by human control is possible. Having successfully completed the test, US Navy is looking at developing the successor of the X-47B successor; the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike robot (UClass) for use in missions considered dangerous for human pilots but firing of onboard weapons with human concurrence.

Dual Mode BRIMSTONE missile

America’s Prompt Global Hawke is designed to travel halfway around the world from launch to target in less than 30 minutes. While the weapon is launched by the Minuteman Missile, the missile release hypersonic ‘gliders’ that are satellite guided and the gliders in turn release the 1000 pound deep penetration bomb.

Elimination of onboard human crew in a combat aircraft that may be shot down over enemy territory has obvious advantages. In addition doing away of a cockpit, flight controls, ejection seat, oxygen, etc., results in decrease of weight, allowing greater payloads (armament, ammunition, cameras etc), plus increased range and manoeuvrability. Interestingly, Thales is assisting Qatar Armed Forces in developing an Optionally Pilot Vehicle — Aircraft (OPV-A); a high performance Intelligence, Surveillance, target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) system with full end-to-end training solution. The OPV-A airframe selected by Qatar will be integrated with a mission system capability to enable the optionally piloted capability as a hybrid between a conventional aircraft and an Unarmed Aircraft System (UAS). It will be able to fly with or without a pilot on board the aircraft.

These days UCAVs are being mounted with lasers and ordnance with better precision. MBDA has successfully demonstrated its Dual Mode BRIMSTONE missile on an MQ-9 REAPER remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in January 2014, scoring nine direct hits against a range of targets including very high speed and manoeuvring vehicles in high collateral risk and urban environments. These trials are another step in the ongoing spiral development of weapon systems for UCAVs, broadening its application to deliver a true multi-role and multi-platform land and maritime attack capability.

Concurrent to development of drones is the ongoing research to bring down enemy drones. The world, especially superpower US, was astounded when Iran downed the US Stealth Drone RQ-170 in December 2011. Hitherto, the downing of drones was only through chance direct hits. Advanced countries have developed laser weapons to down drones that are increasingly the weapon of choice. However, this particular downing evoked massive interests because Iran claimed that the drone had been brought down ‘intact’ using its radio electronic warfare skills and vulnerabilities in the Sentinel’s GPS receiver, to trick it into landing on Iranian territory instead of its designated military base. The claim is considered plausible by many, since the drone did not sustain any visible damage during its alleged crash-landing.

Early this year, Iran surprised the world again by showcasing the replica of CIA’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone, the original having been developed by American firm Lockheed Martin. Interestingly, Iran showcased the duplicate alongside the original downed one at the IRGC’s Aerospace Exhibition. The US Sentinel RQ-170 stealth drone has been deployed for covert operations in Afghanistan. Since 2011, Iran has also hunted down two more types of US drones; 2 x RQ-11 and 1 x ScanEagle that entered Iran from the Persian Gulf. Last year Iran announced it had completed decoding the software and extracted CIA’s surveillance data from the downed US Sentinel RQ-170 stealth drone. Simultaneously, in February 2013, Iran released images of a ScanEagle drone production line and in October 2013, presented a functional copycat model of the US ScanEagle to a visiting Russian military delegation. The fact is that Iran has made significant achievements in its defence sector, producing its own tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles, drones and fighter jets. Even if the copycat RQ-170 stealth drone is somewhat lower in capability compared to the original, it is no mean feat and there may be no reason to suppose so in the first place. China and her protégés (Pakistan and North Korea) have similarly been resorting to leapfrogging technology particularly through reverse engineering. In May 2014, the US indicted five Chinese military officials with cyber espionage charges for allegedly hacking into US companies. US officials have long been concerned about hacking from abroad, especially China.

How China does it
India needs to take serious congnisance of China’s considerable drone capability especially since China reportedly already has 24×7 surveillance cover along the LAC through her extensive satellite network. The Chinese military envisions its drone swarms scouting battlefields, guiding missile strikes and overwhelming the enemy defences through sheer numbers. China’s military-industrial complex has established wide array of indigenous drones to accomplish these goals. One aim of such large drone fleets would be to expand China’s military reach into the Pacific and swarming US carrier groups in the event of conflict. China could possibly be having the largest drone fleets after the US. According to a report in Guardian in 2012 which quoted the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the US was then operating 6,709 drones compared to 280 by China PLA but that difference in numbers could have narrowed considering the modernisation pace of the PLA and her feverish pitch to bridge asymmetry vis-à-vis the US.

ISTAR Trainer

Interestingly, the Chinese ‘Wing Loong’ drone reportedly costs around USD 1 million, compared to the US ‘Reaper’ drone that is in the USD 30 million range. Admittedly, technologies and capabilities may vary but the point to note is that you can perhaps buy 25-30 Wing Loong drones for the price of one Reaper, however what is more significant is that the Wing Loong has the same endurance as the Reaper (20 hours), has a range of 4,000 km and packs four hard points for mounting variety of lasers, precision guided bombs. It is also important to note that China successfully flight-tested a hypersonic vehicle in January 2014 travelling at a speed five times the speed of sound, aiming eventually to attack targets at the speed of Mach 10.

While technology has empowered the terrorist, availability of drones can make terrorist attacks much more deadly. The Sarin Gas attack on the Tokyo Subway on 20 March, 1995 was an act of extremism perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. In five coordinated attacks, Sarin was released on several lines of the Tokyo Metro, killing 13, severely injuring 50 and causing temporary loss of vision to some 1000 people. The cult actually had two remote-controlled helicopters which had luckily crashed during trial runs and they had even smuggled in a Russian Mi-8 helicopter part by part. Had they used aerial spraying, they had enough Sarin to kill one million people, which would have been catastrophic.

Small-sized drones already are in use for private filming, some instances of doing this without any authority have been reported in the Indian media. Many may have gone unnoticed. Terrorists can use these for undertaking physical reconnaissance which has danger of getting caught. LTTE had owned aircraft, the USWA has its own helicopters, and 9/11 terrorists commandeered US commercial aircraft. The threat from air has multiplied greatly with proliferation of UAVs. Commandeering of civil and military drones are also being worked upon by terrorist organisations. If amazon.com can use autonomous winged robots to deliver your orders on your doorstep, so can terrorists deliver bombs and chemicals. Then there are mosquito-sized drones that can be used for surveillance and for dropping short flying-cum-crawling cockroach bombs that control the biology of insects and turns them into insectoid bombs. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) unmanned aircraft update of 2013 shows continued network, software challenges. Communications and effective system control are still big challenges unmanned aircraft developers are facing if they want unfettered access to US airspace. The bottom line for now seems to be that while research and development efforts are under way to mitigate obstacles to safe and routine integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, these efforts cannot be completed and validated without safety, reliability, and performance standards, which have not yet been developed because of data limitations. This is something that India must streamline with likely proliferation of civil drones, both big and small, which is bound to happen with India’s technological and economic rise.

The Indian scenario
In the Indian context, the DRDO is developing the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV as a forerunner to the High Altitude Long Endurance UAV. The MALE concept calls for aircraft which can operate virtually autonomously, programmed with route and target details to undertake the mission without help from human controllers; missions like suppression of enemy AD, electronic warfare, surveillance, precision strike and associated operations. MALE’s surveillance version is expected to have an endurance of 24 hours, operational ceiling up to 35,000 feet, autonomous take-off and landing, wheeled undercarriage and a single (Rotax) piston engine. We certainly need to pick up pace considering the Chinese capability in this sphere. MoD’s 2010 Technology Perspective & Capability Roadmap identifies DEWs and ASAT (anti-satellite) weapons as thrust areas over the next 15 years, but the UAV and MAV programs of DRDO must be not only accelerated, but integrate foreign technology to improve their quality.

We have procured UAVs from Israel and indigenously developed the Nishant and Lakshya for the military but the latter two are far below expectations. As for lasers, only the Laser Dazzler that impairs vision temporarily to control unruly crowds is being operationalised. DRDO’s Laser Science & Tech Centre (LASTEC) is developing ADITYA — a vehicle-mounted gas dynamic laser-based DEW system as a technology demonstrator and a 25-KW laser system is under development to hit a missile in terminal phase at a distance of 5-7 km. In terms of technology, we need riposte ability to paralyse enemy C4I2 infrastructure, stand-off weapons to pre-empt enemy attack, adequate mix of DEW, PGMs, ASATs etc, ability to disrupt enemy logistics etc. Space combat, cyber space combat, radiation combat, robotic combat, nano-technology combat will add to existing forms of combat, zombie war being the latest addition — in all of which drones will play an essential role including round the clock surveillance and keeping the communications through.

The expanding terror threat from our volatile neighbourhood requires 24×7 surveillance; not only along our borders but also within the country to monitor internal threats. We must be prepared to win all types of conflict situations. UAVs are the weapons of the future and there is pressing need for India to think seriously about their use. The numbers should match the threat environment, including surveillance and pinpoint targeting of fleeting terrorist targets. Leapfrogging technology requires special emphasis and the India government’s call to foreign firms to ‘Make in India, Sell Anywhere’ should facilitate joint ventures (JVs) with advanced countries like the US and Israel. EU firms like Dassault of France and Saab of Sweden who have developed have advanced combat drones too need to be cashed upon. However, such JVs would only be possible given the right level of FDI and streamlining the Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) in a manner that both make the Indian Defence Sector unambiguously lucrative to foreign firms. The Department of Industrial Policy and Planning (DIPP) of the Indian Ministry of Commerce and Industry, based on thorough research, has been batting for 74% FDI in case of transfer of technology (ToT) and 100% FDI in case of stateof- the-art technology for a long time, which needs to seriously considered. The DPP too needs to be dispassionately reviewed by an independent body rather than cosmetic changes within the MoD. Permitting the asymmetry vis-à-vis the PLA to widen will be to our grave disadvantage. This needs to be bridged and overtaken. We have to leapfrog technology if we are to overcome our asymmetric infirmities and tilt them to in India’s favour. Finally, to reiterate, drones will play a vital role in future. They are much cheaper compared to manned aircraft and have multiple uses. We must have them in right numbers and of the right quality as early as possible