The armed forces are generally known to be the slowest when it comes to change. But an area, which is rapidly seeing changes within the armed forces, is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or the drone warfare.
The Army, Navy and the Air Force are on an overdrive and are buying them in hordes. Such has been the demand and interest of the armed forces that the recently held DefExpo 2022 in Gandhinagar looked more like a drone show rather than a regular defence exhibition with almost every second exhibitor having something related to the world of UAVs.
The push for drones can be traced back to the IAF’s Mehar Baba Swarm Drone Competition, which was initiated in 2018 and lasted for three years. This competition witnessed 154 startups pitted against each other that led to building of an ecosystem.
The IAF this year has initiated the second edition of the competition.
One would have expected the IAF to drive the drone transformation but it is the Army that is looking out and buying a wide variety of UAVs to meet its operational needs in comparison to the other two Services.
The drones that the Army is interested in vary from the small tactical surveillance ones to the long-range and specialised systems for high altitude, to armed and kamikaze drones, besides the ones meant for logistics.
In 2020, it was the drones that won the war for Azerbaijan. This author had then said that the Indian military should focus on fully exploiting this new technology that has also proved extremely useful in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war too.
And given the tense stand-off with China at the LAC, the Army has gone in for a complete overhaul in tactics and Order of Battle (ORBAT) where the drones now play a significant role.
Also read: Modi govt’s self-reliance goals for Army forcing India to attempt an impossible task
When the change began
The Army began by making its first major change in late 2020 when it decided to hand over all operations of its fleet of Israeli Searcher and Heron UAVs to the Army Aviation Corps from the Artillery. This indicated a basic change in understanding of the Army on how it looks at the future of drones or UAVs.
When the UAVs were first procured in early 2000s, they were primarily used for target sightings and hence they were kept under the artillery, which had the long range.
But the India-China stand-off changes everything.
The Army, which was flying the Herons for surveillance along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) went ahead and bought four of the latest Israeli UAVs, which are satellite linked. This meant that the Herons could undertake longer missions.
The Army also bought the Switch drones manufactured by an Indian startup ideaForge last year and again this year. The Army had described it as a “force multiplier technology” and pointed out that instead of soldiers physically being out in the bitter cold, patrolling every single point, the drones will be the eyes on the ground.
Another addition to the Army’s drone inventory was the induction of the swarm drones this year. These drones, manufactured by Indian startups — Bengaluru-based NewSpace Research and Technology, run by former Indian Air Force officer Sameer Joshi, and Noida-based Raphe mPhibr Private Limited, have been inducted by the Armoured Corps and the Mechanised Infantry.
Both these arms are also looking at buying more drones and counter drones measures and have already issued Requests for Information.
The ongoing upgrades of their equipment also takes into account both drones and counter-drone capabilities.
The Army has also initiated work on specialised swarm drones that can be deployed in high-altitude areas like Eastern Ladakh.
In October itself, sources in the defence establishment have said that the Army has also gone ahead and issued tenders for buying nearly 2,000 different kinds of drones, all through the indigenous route.
This includes those for over 300 high-altitude logistics drones with different capacity, 1000 surveillance copters, 80 mini remotely piloted aircraft, besides 750 remotely piloted aerial vehicles.
The Army has also ordered for over 100 tactical Indo-Israel kamikaze drones, used in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, to beef up its operational capability along the borders with Pakistan and China, deliveries of which have already started. These drones are being manufactured by a joint venture between Israel’s Elbit System and India’s Alpha Design, which is now part of the Adani Group.
The Army is also looking at buying more loitering munitions and has signed one more deal, defence sources said. This is new for the Army because until now loitering munitions were in service with the IAF only.
Also read: Launch of missile from Arihant a milestone. But India’s nuclear triad isn’t complete yet
Army sources explained that the drone has seen a major push within the Service because of the advantage that they offer when it comes to surveillance and even punitive action. The Army is trying to team up its various formations and equipment with drones so that they can be one cohesive unit.
The drones have been very useful in the mountainous terrain because it gives the soldiers eyes and ears beyond the passes. Each arm of the Army like the Artillery, Armoured Corps, Infantry are pursuing their own drone requirements.
The IAF on the other hand is working on much bigger drone projects and are looking at teaming them up with fighter aircraft. However, the IAF’s view is that in a closely contested air space with strong air defence systems like with Pakistan or China, the slow moving drones will not stand a chance when it comes to striking deep on its own.
The Navy is looking at drones to operate from its ships as well as loitering munitions besides those for logistics.
A big tri-Service drone project is Project Cheetah. Under this, India’s fleet of Heron drones are to be upgraded which will include the capability of satellite navigation and specialised sensors.
But the icing on the cake is the plan to arm them. Under the original plan, the Israelis were to upgrade the Herons with the ability to not only undertake more specialised and longer surveillance missions but also precision strikes. The Herons will thus have the capability to carry and launch air-to-ground precision missiles.
However, sources said that the plan is for the Israelis to undertake the project in India through joint collaboration with an Indian company, which is likely to be a private one.
Sources said the strong push by the armed forces for drones is not just because it strongly feels they are the future but also because there has been a strong push by the government. In August 2021, new rules for drone technologies were notified by the Modi government.
As reported earlier, The ‘Drone Rules 2021’ form the government’s ideational bedrock to catalyse a booming indigenous drone production industry, especially as the government works to build a strong military-industrial complex in India.
And this is what holds the future. With armed forces placing orders after orders, more and more players are entering the market, a development which was unthinkable a few years back.
Views are personal