For the past one month, the ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has made the militaries world over sit up and take notice of the extensive use of high-end military technology — armed/unarmed drones and loiter munitions, colloquially known as kamikaze drones. The videos that have emerged from the conflict demonstrate how artificial intelligence-based weapons system will have a major impact on shaping the contours of future conflicts, relegating the much romanticised close combat to the sidelines.
It is empirical wisdom that the development and introduction of path-breaking military technologies, and their antidotes is near simultaneous. What you require is the know-how and a will to reform and pay the costs involved — India is notorious for violating these cardinals. Nothing demonstrates this better than our inability in neutralising the Chinese intrusions and coercion on the LAC due to the huge differential in high-technology capabilities.
I analyse these technologies, their exploitation by our adversaries, our current status and the way forward.
What are these technologies?
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones as they are popularly called, have been around for nearly four decades now. These were initially developed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Armed with an array of sensors and having long endurance, the UAVs gave real-time intelligence of the battlefield to direct the fire of various weapon systems. The 21st century saw the advent of armed drones that could carry Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) and missiles. Their effectiveness was proved in Afghanistan beginning 2001—eliminating Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Initially, this capability was the monopoly of the US, but in the last few years, at least 10 countries other than America — Israel, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and the United Arab Emirates — have conducted drone strikes, and many more countries have them in their arsenal.
Drones can be used both at the tactical and strategic level. The latter is dependent on space-based intelligence, communications and navigation. The US, Israel and China are the biggest manufacturer of drones of all types. Turkey has progressed rapidly to produce, export and use armed drones.
Loiter munition is a bomb with an inbuilt guidance system, which is much cheaper to produce and can effectively target weapons system and personnel. These come both in kamikazi (one-time use mode) and the more sophisticated return-to-base models, in case it remains un-utilised. A swarm of such loiter munition can be launched from a launcher with multiple tubes. The use of loiter munition in large numbers will be a game changer on the tactical battlefield. The psychological impact of being targeted by an unknown and unseen enemy is far greater – “Where are you, bastards? ” shouted a frustrated Armenian soldier after one such devastating strike.
China, Pakistan and non-State actors
China initially relied on imports but has now become a leading manufacturer and seller of these modern weapons. In 2015, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria all conducted strikes using armed drones supplied by, or developed in coordination with China. China has both unarmed and armed drones in its inventory. Hence, it is logical to presume that it has a large number of loiter munitions as well.
During China’s National Day parade in October 2019, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) displayed a number of UAVs — DR-8 supersonic spy drone, the GJ-11 stealth combat drone and the GJ-2 reconnaissance and strike drone. The PLA has also deployed another drone named CH-4, which underwent tests in the Tibetan plateau region in 2018, and the BZK-005C, specifically modified for use in high altitudes. Since 2017, China has exported CH-4 and CH-5 fixed-wing reconnaissance and strike drones, selling them to more than 10 countries, shipping more than 200 units every year. Recently, China also conducted a test of swarm drones.
As early as 2013, Pakistan had displayed two domestically produced drones based on China’s CH-3 model that were already in service in its armed forces. In 2015, Pakistan used its domestic model, the Burraq, based on CH-3 in a publicly-owned strike on militants in the North Waziristan region. In 2018, China finalised its biggest drone sale when Pakistan agreed to buy 48 GJ-2 drones, under its export name Wing Loong II. Pakistan is also likely to possess loiter munitions in unknown numbers.
With both our adversaries having the capability to manufacture drones, it is only a matter of time before non-State actors start using them too — both for induction of arms/ammunition/stores and for direct attack. Man pack loiter munition is the most likely mode of attack by the terrorists.
Where does India stand?
India has, so far, been using drones primarily for ISR purposes. It began early by importing Searcher 1 and 2 drones from Israel in the late 1990s for the three Services. These were followed by the Heron — a sophisticated long-range, long-endurance and high-altitude unarmed drone. Ninety Herons are currently in service with the Indian armed forces. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has also imported a limited number of Harop suicide drones from Israel, primarily for suppression of enemy air-defence systems. The Indian Navy is in the process of procuring 30 unarmed Sea Guardian drones from the US. However, India’s indigenous development of various unarmed/armed drones is still at the trial stage.
So far, India does not have the classic strategic armed drone in its arsenal, though we have initiated the project to modify part of the existing fleet of Heron UAVs into armed UAVs. The combination of two foundational pacts signed with the US — Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on Tuesday — has paved the way for importing 30 Reaper or Predator-B armed drones. These agreements will also make the drone attacks more effective due to access to geospatial, communications, location and navigation capabilities.
The Way forward
There should be no doubt that the Indian armed forces have been left way behind with respect to development and possession of armed drones, loiter ammunition and other AI military technologies. It is pertinent to highlight that what was achieved by the surgical strike of 2016 and the Balakot air strike of 2019 could have also been done with the help of loiter munitions and armed UAVs. They would have captured high-resolution real-time videos of the attack and the damage caused for psychological impact as is being done by Azerbaijan.
While urgent procurement is necessary to bridge this yawning gap in the armed drones and loiter munition capability, eventually, a holistic look would be required to exploit emerging AI technologies and integrate them with the existing conventional systems. And for this, India’s scientific community and the Defence Research and Development Organisation will have to rise from their slumber and deliver. Selcuk Bayraktar who quit his PhD at MIT in 2007 to develop Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, considered a game changer, at less than half the cost of the much acclaimed Reaper armed drone, should be a role model for our IIT graduates.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.