Meerut/Auli: Perched on a gloved hand, the black eagle awaits orders. The moment comes and she’s soaring skywards, until she locks on to her prey. And then she’s swooping down, and it’s all over for her unlucky — and unlikely — victim, a quadcopter drone. After dragging the contraption down with her talons, she flies off once more, to carry out the other half of her mission: Surveillance.
This was a scene witnessed at Yudh Abhyas, the ongoing Indo-US military exercise being held in Auli, Uttarakhand. Faced with the menace of enemy drones and the need to carry out deeper surveillance without the worry of being tracked, the Army is putting a flock of avian recruits through boot camp.
The Remount Veterinary Corps (RVC) Centre in Meerut has been quietly training black eagles and falcons to take down quadcopters — a type of helicopter with four rotors, now a popular design for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones — in the air.
“The eagles have taken down several hundred of them (quadcopters) in training, at times destroying them completely. Since these are quadcopters, none of the eagles have been injured so far,” said a source in the defence establishment.
Sources said a majority of these birds are rescued ones, part of the Falcon Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. A large number of birds have been in training for this mission since 2020.
And having noticed that modern drones used by possible foes, as well as their own side, are now bigger in size, the trainers at the RVC have also been training these birds for surveillance. The birds are, accordingly, fitted with cameras on their heads to record videos. While currently, the cameras are small ones that can’t relay live feeds, the idea is to slowly increase their capacity as the birds continue their training.
“These birds are very territorial. When we launch them in a particular area, they themselves make their own circle of territory. With time, this circle keeps increasing and the bird is able to carry out surveillance of a large area,” another source said.
Sources explained that the training is being done through positive reinforcement, with a handler assigned to each bird. However, these efforts are still at the training stage and the eagles haven’t been deployed operationally.
“We will operationally deploy them once we are completely satisfied with their performance,” the first source said.
The RVC, which has aced the training and deployment of dogs in the armed forces, is hopeful that the eagles will be up to the job.
The emphasis on drone technology — in both offensive and defensive operations — is a response to the increased use of UAVs in global warfare. The Netherlands had made headlines in 2016 for using eagles to take down drones, calling it a “low-tech solution to a high-tech problem”.
The Army isn’t the first Indian agency to hone in on the potential of these apex predators, either. In July 2020, the Telangana government had issued an order asking the state home department to train a squad of eagles to take down illegal drones at VIP events.
The home department will reportedly train the birds — named the Garuda Squad — at the Integrated Intelligence Training Academy in Moinabad. Two trainers were to be hired by 31 March 2021.
A bird’s eye view
A major in the British Army Pigeon Service during World War 2 once compared birds in the army to guns in the hands of civilians. “You probably never needed it. If you did need it, you needed it badly,” he reportedly said.
One of the oldest means of military communication, birds have a long history of being used in military and intelligence operations due to their speed and homing ability.
World War 2 saw them deployed extensively. The British army used hundreds of pigeons throughout the war to relay intelligence and communicate news from the battlefront.
Some were even used as counter-spies: The Germans tried to parachute their pigeons — disguised to look like Allied pigeons — into France. In another theatre, agents of the American Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were routinely dropped off in Burma with a pigeon in a small bamboo cage. This bird would then be sent with a coded message containing instructions, or indicating that all was well.
Now, with the advent of modern warfare, birds can be put to yet more uses — and have become a viable option to counter the rising tide of mini UAVs.
As an American major said to The New York Times in 1941, “Pigeons can win battles.”
(Edited by V.S. Chandrasekar)