The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is pushing ahead with its drone programme as part of its initiative for advancement and strengthening the country’s defence capabilities with major domestic and foreign projects and deals in the pipeline. Experts view this as a part of a critical overhaul of the armed forces which will help India deal with adversaries that have advanced military might, while protecting the lives of its soldiers at the same time. Experts feel that India is still vulnerable to cyber attacks but it is improving its capabilities in countering the threat.
Last year, India agreed to a deal with Israel to buy 10 Heron Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), otherwise known as combat drones, at a proposed cost of $400 million. The Heron, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries, is a medium-altitude, long-endurance class UCAV. The Heron has a 7,400-km range and a maximum continuous flight time capability of 36 hours, in permitting weather conditions. The Heron is widely believed to be well suited for missions of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions as well as strike missions. It is capable of carrying a 1,000 kg payload. The variant offered to India will have the capability to be equipped with air to ground missiles.
Besides the Heron, the Defence Research and Development Organisation is developing its own Rustom drone, which is a medium-altitude long-endurance UCAV that was first tested in 2009. Although it showed promise during the test, it remains years away from operational clearance and being combat-ready. For now, the Herons are poised to become the backbone of the Indian combat drone fleet.
According to the MoD, India has 176 Israeli-made drones in operation, out of which 108 are IAI Searchers and 68 are unarmed Heron-1 aircraft that are used primarily for surveillance missions. Experts view the step to expand India’s drone fleet as a welcome move and one that was long time coming.
“It is (quipping armed forces with drones) the call of the times. The nature of warfare has changed. Our border lines are on very difficult terrains. It is very difficult to check the depredations from across the border. So drones are very effective. In fact, it is effective not only for surveillance, but also for immediate retaliation,” Jayadeva Ranade, Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, told this newspaper.
The ministry first decided to purchase combat drones from Israel in 2012. The Indian Army first bought the drones from Israel in the late 1990s; the Air Force and Navy followed suit. The Indian armed forces have been using drones for a little over a decade now.
The plans to buy Heron drones came a short while after Pakistan announced that it used indigenously built combat drones Burraq to strike down terrorists in its own territory. Some quarters have apprehensions about Pakistan having an increased capability to carry out covert deep strikes in Indian territory. They see India’s rush to acquire combat drones as a good measure of deterrence. “There is no advantage in them (Pakistan) having drones capable of striking deep inside our country and our not having defence. So, in any case, even from the perspective of deterrence, it is useful for us to have drones. Drones in any case are something that are multipliers. It is something that will be used in a tactical sense or either for hot pursuit or other missions like that. In certain scenarios, it might end up being used in escalation. It is something that the commandos will have to talk about. I think they are primarily going to be used for surveillance and deterrence and it is a good option to have,” Ranade said.
In addition to the strategic capabilities, ex-servicemen welcome this step as one that will save the lives of many Indian soldiers in the future.
Lt. Gen. (retd) Raj Kadyan told this newspaper: “It is important for the armed forces to advance themselves. Drones, most importantly, save precious lives of our soldiers. On the battlefront, if a drone cancels the need for a soldier to risk his life, then it is wise to equip the forces with such technology.”
The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have now turned into sophisticated Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) which include ground stations, satellite connectivity, onboard weapon systems and other components. These systems are good for surveillance as well as precision strikes and bombings.
Since he agreed the deal with Israel last year, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been pressing the Israelis for the fast delivery of the drones.
“One of the biggest achievements of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is that he has streamlined the procurement procedure for the Armed forces that has cleared a lot of stuck proposals,” he added.
India is also looking to advance its capabilities on the lines of unconventional means of warfare like cyber attacks. Experts feel that India is vulnerable in that aspect, but is in the process of improving its capabilities to counter the threat.
“The scenario for cyber warfare has changed already. Some countries are way ahead, and we are at the receiving end at the moment. We are getting a lot of hits from a number of countries, particularly the Chinese, and of course Pakistan; but their efforts and methods are not as sophisticated as that of the Chinese. The Chinese are more sophisticated and more widespread. We also have hardened our capabilities, but it will take a bit of time. It is inescapable that we acquire such cyber warfare capabilities as that will not only prevent attacks, but will also take us to the next stage or next generation of being able to cripple the ones who attack us,” Ranade added.