The news we are waiting for is whether the UAV crashed on its own or more worryingly, was brought down by the Chinese.
The news of the loss of an Indian Army unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) raises many questions.
The Indian Army official statement has said that it was on a training mission and strayed across the LAC in the Sikkim area. But what is awaited is the report about whether it crashed on its own or was brought down by the Chinese. The next issue is whether it was a Searcher Mk II or a Heron – both imported from Israel.
There are four reasons why this loss is worrisome, irrespective of the type of the UAV.
First: it is the loss of an aviation asset that is difficult to come by. The Heron/Searcher is imported from Israel and to get a new bird as a replacement would take years to process in our bureaucratic maze.
Second: while we would be one UAV less, it is the loss of a reconnaissance capability that would hurt operationally. A UAV, especially of the Heron class, brings with it high altitude transit and reconnaissance capability, which is vital in our northern borders. Flying inside national airspace, the payloads carried by the Heron can look across the border without the adversary realising that it is being snooped on; it would paint as a blip on his radar without him able to do anything about it. The closer the flight path is to the border, and if across, better is the quality of information that would be available.
Third: if it has fallen into unwanted hands, it is really worrisome. The Chinese would surely strip the payload for its technology and improve their own.
It is a well-known fact that Israeli electronics are one of the best in the world, while those of China are not. Even though Israel would not have sold their latest version of the payload to India, it would be safe to assume that the Chinese engineers would be eager to get a hand on the electronics.
The Chinese are known to aggressively pursue getting hold of western technology. They reportedly got hold of the electronics and stealth data of the F-117 shot down in March 1999 during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. There are reports they had a look at the American Special Forces H-60 stealth Blackhawk helicopter that crashed during the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad.
Last, but most importantly, why did the ground control lose command of the UAV? If it was a link loss, then the UAV would have come back on its own due to the safety feature of ‘get back home’ logarithms that kick-in. So, if that did not happen, was it shot down from ground or by a Chinese aviation asset – fighter or helicopter? If yes, it would imply that its position was compromised by a radar/acoustic or visual signature – all things that the court of inquiry would be looking into (incidentally, an IAF Searcher was lost to a Pakistani F-16 in 2002 across Amritsar).
If this was not the case, was the control taken over by spoofing of the radio link by the Chinese, as was supposedly done by Iran’s ‘cyber warfare units’ on 4 December 2011 when an American RQ-170 Sentinel UAV was recovered by them in a fairly undamaged condition? If this was the case, it would be a very serious occurrence, as we would have to revamp and overhaul UAV SOPs for operations near the border, as also look at the electronic warfare susceptibility of the UAVs with us.
The most re-assuring news (if that can be called as such) would be that the UAV had some technical defect, like an engine fault, which made it lose height and make it unrecoverable or return home in the automatic mode. Or that it crashed so hard that its electronics were totally destroyed on impact. But that would be wishful thinking.
The author is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the IAF.