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.

SP's MAI - - FRONT PAGE - The views ex­pressed herein are the per­sonal views of the au­thor.

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


A model of the DRDO’s Rus­tom UAV

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