The UCAV War
The Defence Research and Development Organisation is developing the medium altitude long endurance UAV as a forerunner to the high altitude long endurance UAV.
The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unarmed combat air vehicles (UCAVs) are not new. The US and NATO forces have used them extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq, as also there have been numerous Predator UCAV attacks inside Pakistan. The UCAV is a UAV designed to deliver weapons (attack targets) without an onboard pilot.
Currently operational UCAVs are under realtime human control, but future version may enable autonomous operation. Elimination of onboard human crew in a combat aircraft that may be shot down over enemy territory has obvious advantages. In addition doing away of a cockpit, flight controls, ejection seat, oxygen etc results in decrease of weight, allowing greater payloads (armament, ammunition, cameras etc), plus increased range and manoeuvrability.
Interestingly, Thales is assisting Qatar armed forces in developing an optionally pilot vehicle – aircraft (OPV-A); a high performance intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) system with full end-to-end training solution. The OPV-A airframe seletcted by Qatar will be integrated with a mission system capability to enable the optionally piloted capability as a hybrid between a conventional aircraft and an unarmed aircraft system (UAS). It will be able to fly with or without a pilot on board the aircraft. UCAVs are being mounted with lasers and ordnance with better precision.
MBDA has successfully demonstrated its dual mode Brimstone missile on an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in January 2014, scoring nine direct hits against a range of targets including very high speed and manoeuvring vehicles in high collateral risk and urban environments. These trials are another step in the ongoing spiral development of weapon systems for UCAVs, broadening its
application to deliver a true multi-role and multi-platform land and maritime attack capability.
Concurrent to development of drones is the ongoing research to bring down enemy drones. In December 2011, Iran captured a top of the line American Lockheed Martin Sentinel stealth UAV. Iran claimed that the UAV was brought down by her cyber-warfare unit, commandeering it in flight and safely landing it albeit western sources claimed it was shot down.
But closer home we need to take serious note of China’s considerable drone capability especially since China reportedly has 24 x 7 surveillance cover along the line of actual control (LAC) through her extensive satellite network. China could possibly be having the largest drone fleets after the US. In 2012, the US was reportedly operating 6,709 drones compared to 280 by PLA but that difference in numbers could have narrowed down considering the modernisation pace of the PLA and enormous defence spending. The PLA envisions its drone swarms scouting battlefields, guiding missile strikes and overwhelming the enemy defences through sheer numbers.
China’s military-industrial complex has established vide array of indigenous drones to accomplish these goals. Interestingly, China’s ‘Wing Loong’ drone reportedly costs around $1 million, compared to the US ‘Reaper’ drone in the $30 million range. While technological capabilities may vary but the fact remains that one can perhaps buy 25-30 Wing Loong drones for the price of one Reaper. More significantly, the Wing Loong has the same endurance as the Reaper (20 hours), has a range of 4,000 km and packs four hard points for mounting variety of lasers, precision guided bombs.
It is also important to note that China successfully flight tested a hypersonic vehicle in January 2014 travelling at a speed five times the speed of sound, aiming eventually to attack targets at the speed of Mach 10. In our case, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing the medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV as a forerunner to the high altitude long endurance UAV. The MALE concept calls for aircraft which can operate virtually autonomously, programmed with route and target details to undertake the mission without help from human controllers; missions like suppression of enemy AD, electronic warfare, surveillance, precision strike and associated operations. MALE’s surveillance version is expected to have an endurance of 24 hours, operational ceiling up to 35,000 feet, autonomous take-off and landing, wheeled undercarriage and a single (Rotax) piston engine.
We certainly need to pick up pace considering the Chinese capability in this sphere. The Ministry of Defence’s 2010 Technology Perspective & Capability Roadmap identifies DEWs and ASAT (antisatellite) weapons as thrust areas over next 15 years but the UAV and MAV programmes of DRDO must be accelerated.
In terms of technology, we need riposte ability to paralyse enemy C4I2 infrastructure, stand-off weapons to pre-empt enemy attack, adequate mix of DEW, PGMs, ASATs etc, ability to disrupt enemy logistics etc. Space combat, cyber space combat, radiation combat, robotic combat, nano-technology combat will add to existing forms of combat, zombie war being the latest addition. We must be prepared to win such conflict situations. Leapfrogging technology requires special emphasis. Permitting the asymmetry vis-à-vis the PLA to widen will be to our grave disadvantage. This needs to be bridged and overtaken. We have to leapfrog technology if we are to overcome our asymmetric infirmities and tilt them to in India’s favour.
MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft
LT GENERAL (RETD) P.C. KATOCH
A model of the DRDO’s Rustom UAV