UAVs: En­hanc­ing Com­bat Po­ten­tial and Emerg­ing Trends

UAVs, with their in­her­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics to pro­vide the flex­i­bil­ity to op­er­ate in the ex­tended bat­tle space, en­able the ground forces to see first, understand first, act first and fin­ish de­ci­sively


IN­FOR­MA­TION IS AN EL­E­MENT of com­bat power and a com­bat mul­ti­plier in the hands of a com­man­der. Field com­man­ders re­quire an or­ganic, re­spon­sive, eco­nom­i­cally vi­able, mul­ti­source, long en­durance, near real time re­con­nais­sance ca­pa­bil­ity to col­lect, process and re­port in­tel­li­gence through­out the level of con­flict 24x7. The an­swer lies in the use of un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles (UAVs), with their in­her­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics to pro­vide the flex­i­bil­ity to op­er­ate in the ex­tended bat­tle space, thereby en­abling the ground forces to see first, understand first, act first and fin­ish de­ci­sively.

It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how any fu­ture op­er­a­tion would be con­ducted with­out com­man­ders both in the front line and rear hav­ing their sit­u­a­tional aware­ness en­hanced 24x7 by near real time video feeds. In the past decade UAVs have pro­gressed from be­ing mi­nor play­ers in the in­tel­li­gence and sit­u­a­tional aware­ness (ISA) role to be­ing a key part of com­bat oper­a­tions as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, with sin­gle plat­forms now ca­pa­ble of achiev­ing the en­tire find, fix, track, en­gage and as­sess kill chain.

Un­manned ve­hi­cles are low cost, low risk and high pay­off ISR sys­tems which are not im­peded by re­straints im­posed on manned sys­tems, where both the air­craft and crew could be lost. In fact they are in­creas­ingly be­ing em­ployed for mis­sions that were hith­erto the do­main of manned air­craft. The UAVs to­day are also pro­vid­ing ex­clu­sive ca­pa­bil­ity to forces en­gaged in sub­con­ven­tional oper­a­tions, es­pe­cially in the global war on ter­ror­ism – in Afghanistan and Pak­istan.

Cur­rent tech­nolo­gies, es­pe­cially in sen­sor suites, make to­day’s UAVs more so­phis­ti­cated than ever and are ex­pand­ing their role in com­bat oper­a­tions. As range, al­ti­tude and loi­ter time in­crease the UAVs are pro­vid­ing be­yond line of sight re­con­nais­sance, fires and over watch. This sup­port en­ables rapid move­ment, tar­get iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and en­gage­ment with en­hanced

bat­tle dam­age as­sess­ment making this weapon sys­tem a true force mul­ti­plier. By ex­tend­ing fu­ture bat­tle space cov­er­age, UAVs will pro­vide greater sit­u­a­tional aware­ness that not only en­hances force pro­tec­tion and sur­viv­abil­ity but will also gen­er­ate greater lethal­ity.

The revo­lu­tion in un­manned war­fare has been a long time com­ing and it got its im­pe­tus with the Is­raelis demon­strat­ing how UAVs could be ef­fec­tively used in oper­a­tions in the Yom Kip­pur war in 1973. In­ter­est in the UAVs fur­ther in­ten­si­fied fol­low­ing their suc­cess­ful em­ploy­ment on the battlefield in Oper­a­tions Desert Storm and En­dur­ing Free­dom in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005 the tac­ti­cal and the­atre level un­manned air­craft alone had flown 1,00,000 flight hours in sup­port of the above oper­a­tions. In Afghanistan the Global Hawk and Preda­tor UAVs have been used ex­ten­sively in car­ry­ing out all types of mis­sions both ISR and com­bat. To­day tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced mil­i­taries across the world have in­cor­po­rated UAVs as a new crit­i­cal and com­bat en­hanc­ing com­po­nent of their in­ven­tory. While Is­rael and the US have been the pi­o­neers in UAV de­vel­op­ment, at least 14 other coun­tries in­clud­ing China and In­dia are now us­ing/de­vel­op­ing over 76 dif­fer­ent types of UAVs for all types of ISR mis­sions in­clud­ing com­bat.

Em­ploy­ment Phi­los­o­phy/Role

Cur­rent mil­i­tary UAVs per­form re­con­nais­sance as well as at­tack mis­sions. Though in­tel­li­gence, re­con­nais­sance and surveil­lances mis­sion still re­main the pre­dom­i­nant roles, other ar­eas of em­ploy­ment in­clude elec­tronic at­tack, strike mis­sions, sup­pres­sion and/or de­struc­tion of enemy air de­fence, net­work node or com­mu­ni­ca­tions re­lay and com­bat search and res­cue. The com­bi­na­tion of loi­ter time and lay­ered em­ploy­ment of UAVs pro­vides the crit­i­cal ca­pa­bil­ity needed to sup­port net­work-cen­tric oper­a­tions.

UAVs are of­ten pre­ferred for mis­sions that are too dull, dirty or dan­ger­ous for manned air­craft. The con­cept of killer/ hunter UAVs for strike mis­sions is a re­al­ity in Afghanistan. The Preda­tor, car­ry­ing two ‘Hell­fire’ mis­siles has been ex­ten­sively used by the US forces for strike mis­sions against the Tal­iban and Al Qaeda mil­i­tants in Afghanistan and Pak­istan’s tribal ar­eas. Th­ese UAVs are be­ing pi­loted for mis­sions in Iraq and Afghanistan from half­way across the world in Ne­vada and Cal­i­for­nia more than 12,800 km from the killing zone, pro­vid­ing real time video feeds to troops on ground. How­ever, the vast ma­jor­ity of roughly 1,500 UAVs fly­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan are much smaller, con­trolled by sol­diers and marines on the ground. The small­est is the ‘Raven’, about the size of a large model air­plane with a wing­span of three feet, which is some­times mis­taken for a bird fly­ing high in the sky.

Sub­con­ven­tional Oper­a­tions

UAVs are pro­vid­ing ex­clu­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties for forces en­gaged in the global war on ter­ror­ism. The counter-in­sur­gency/counter- ter­ror­ist (CI/CT) oper­a­tions re­quire timely, re­spon­sive and ac­cu­rate in­tel­li­gence to suc­ceed and the UAV is the best suited weapon plat­form for this task. The UAV is ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing in a per­mis­sive as well as non-per­mis­sive (within an­other coun­try’s sov­er­eign airspace) en­vi­ron­ment and with a va­ri­ety of sen­sors suit­able for sin­gle or multi-mis­sion oper­a­tions. The sen­sor can trans­mit in­for­ma­tion based on de­tec­tion, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and lo­ca­tion of mil­i­tant groups to in­tel­li­gence agen­cies or to surveil­lances teams. UAVs could also pro­vide sup­port to troops on the ground dur­ing the oper­a­tions in terms of real time im­age or sig­nal in­tel­li­gence via a se­cure down­link. An armed UAV over­head could pro­vide timely on scene fire­power, a sit­u­a­tion reg­u­larly be­ing played out in Afghanistan and tribal ar­eas of Pak­istan.

Devel­op­ments in In­dia

Suc­cess­ful use of UAVs and their com­bat en­hanc­ing po­ten­tial has gen­er­ated the in­ter­est of mil­i­taries across the world. China and Pak­istan are adding UAVs of var­i­ous ca­pa­bil­i­ties to their in­ven­tory and have ex­pressed in­ter­est in de­vel­op­ing and procur­ing UAVs with en­hanced ca­pa­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing armed ver­sions. Dur­ing the last couple of years China has un­veiled more than 25 dif­fer­ent mod­els of UAVs, prom­i­nent among them be­ing the WJ600 com­bat UAV. The WJ600 is said to be ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing sev­eral mis­siles – as per re­ports China is cur­rently also work­ing on the de­vel­op­ment of a stealth UAV/UCAV. In­dia too has not been left out of the global UAV push, with a ma­jor thrust of its armed forces mod­erni­sa­tion plans fo­cus­ing on aug­ment­ing their cur­rent mea­gre re­sources—the Is­raeli Searcher II and Heron (MALE) UAVs. In­dia has de­vel­oped a smaller UAV, the Nis­hant (cat­a­pult launch and parachute re­cov­ery) which has al­ready en­tered ser­vice with the Army. In ad­di­tion, In­dia is un­der­tak­ing a de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme for a UAV in the Heron / Preda­tor class of MALE UAVs, called the ‘Rus­tom’—a 1,100-1,300 kg UAV, with a max­i­mum al­ti­tude of 35,000 feet and range of 300 km. The state-run Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) along with Bharat Elec­tron­ics are slated to de­sign and build this UAV. How­ever, In­dia’s most prized in­dige­nous drone pro­gramme is the de­vel­op­ment of the au­ton­o­mous un­manned re­search air­craft (AURA). The De­fence Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion (DRDO) has em­barked on the de­vel­op­ment of the AURA un­manned com­bat aerial ve­hi­cle (UCAV) which is stated to be a high speed stealth UCAV, ca­pa­ble of au­tonomously seek­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing and de­stroy­ing tar­gets, with mis­siles, bombs and pre­ci­sion guided mu­ni­tions – as per DRDO the first flight is ex­pected by end this year. In the in­terim the gov­ern­ment has cleared the ac­qui­si­tion of 10 mis­sile armed ‘Heron TP’ UCAVs from Is­rael – th­ese are sim­i­lar to the well-known US UCAV ‘Preda­tor’.

Al­though large size UAVs have been pro­cured by the armed forces there has been no move­ment on the mi­cro and mini UAVs in­clud­ing man pack, which are essen-

To­day tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced mil­i­taries across the world have in­cor­po­rated UAVs as a new crit­i­cal and com­bat en­hanc­ing com­po­nent of their in­ven­tory

tial for the tac­ti­cal bat­tle area and CI/CT oper­a­tions. Re­ports in­di­cate that the In­dian Army is also on the look­out for minia­ture UAVs (MAVs), which can evade enemy radar, are easy to han­dle, can be launched with­out run­ways and are also ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing ex­plo­sives to act as killer drones for small but high value tar­gets. The main aim is to use them for mon­i­tor­ing moun­tain­ous ter­rain, con­flict zones and con­gested ur­ban ar­eas. The MAVs would be very use­ful in CI/CT oper­a­tions in J&K and the North East. The MAVs could weigh as less as 2 kg and have an en­durance of 30 min­utes at a stretch. How­ever, in the re­cent past there has been some pos­i­tive moves by the gov­ern­ment in this di­rec­tion with the fo­cus shift­ing to the pri­vate sec­tor in the ‘Make in In­dia’ thrust. A num­ber of pri­vate firms have been given the go-ahead to build this seg­ment of UAVs with part­ner­ship with for­eign OEMs if re­quired – li­cences have been is­sued to some of them. Also, ear­lier this year the joint de­vel­op­ment and co-pro­duc­tion of the next-gen­er­a­tion mini-hand­launched UAV ‘Raven’ was one of the four pathfinder projects agreed to, dur­ing the Obama-Modi sum­mit – the present gen­er­a­tion of Ravens have proved their worth in oper­a­tions in Afghanistan. Th­ese are very pos­i­tive devel­op­ments for the UAV in­dus­try in In­dia and the In­dian mil­i­tary.

Fu­ture Trends

The in­creas­ing de­mand and reliance on UAVs in warfight­ing and peace­keep­ing oper­a­tions has dou­bled the pace of UAVre­lated re­search and de­vel­op­ment in re­cent years. UAVs to­day, with en­hanced ca­pa­bil­i­ties, are able to play a greater role in crit­i­cal mis­sions. Achiev­ing in­for­ma­tion su­pe­ri­or­ity, min­imis­ing col­lat­eral dam­age, fight­ing ef­fec­tively in ur­ban area against widely dis­persed forces, strik­ing au­tonomously and pre­cisely, are ar­eas where UAVs will be in­creas­ingly in­dis­pens­able. The three ma­jor thrusts in UAV de­vel­op­ment are growth in size of strate­gic UAVs for bet­ter en­durance and pay­load, re­duc­tion in size of tac­ti­cal UAVs, weapon­i­sa­tion of UAVs to of­fer lethal ca­pa­bil­ity in com­bat mis­sions and au­ton­omy—com­monly de­fined as abil­ity of the ma­chine to take de­ci­sions with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion. Armed forces world­wide are be­gin­ning to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of­fered by un­manned sys­tems as both sen­sor and weapon plat­forms. The prom­ise of an au­ton­o­mous, highly sur­viv­able and ab­so­lutely fear­less UAV will usher in a new par­a­digm in which the ul­ti­mate con­sid­er­a­tion is no longer the value of pi­lots lives, but the mis­sion and cost­ef­fec­tive­ness of UAVs. The ad­vent of light air­borne pre­ci­sion weapons, au­ton­o­mous tar­get ac­qui­si­tion and recog­ni­tion tech­nolo­gies will push UAVs to­wards be­com­ing armed and lethal un­manned plat­forms. UAVs with the abil­ity to pick out tar­gets in at­tack au­tonomously with per­sis­tent pres­ence over ar­eas of in­ter­est will come of age in the near fu­ture and be­come in­dis­pens­able weapons of war for com­man­ders.

The con­tin­ued de­vel­op­ment of strate­gic and tac­ti­cal UAVs fol­lows the line of em­ploy­ing UAVs as multi-role multi-mis­sion plat­forms. UAVs will see pro­gres­sive devel­op­ments to­wards both ex­treme ends of size spec­trum. Strate­gic UAVs will see growth in size for bet­ter en­durance, re­li­a­bil­ity and pay­load ca­pac­ity, while the mini and mi­cro UAVs will grow smaller, lighter and more ex­pend­able. The tac­ti­cal close range plat­forms will be­come more ver­sa­tile with multi-role multi-mis­sion ca­pa­bil­ity. Pas­sive and low sig­na­ture sen­sors are es­sen­tial to boost stealth and sur­viv­abil­ity of UAVs. Note­wor­thy ad­vances in­clude hy­per-spec­tral imag­ing, laser radar, syn­thetic aper­ture radar and mov­ing tar­get indi­ca­tor.

In­creas­ing de­mand of bet­ter per­for­mance and higher re­li­a­bil­ity will es­ca­late the de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion costs of UAVs. Whether the plat­form is de­signed to be even more re­li­able than an air­craft de­pends on its ap­pli­ca­tion, the pay­load it car­ries, mis­sion pay off and cost ef­fec­tive­ness. It must be ap­pre­ci­ated that for strate­gic high value UAVs to per­form as well as manned sys­tems will have higher ac­qui­si­tion costs. The de­vel­op­ment of larger size UAVs (fixed-wing and ro­tary) in the cargo car­riage role is al­ready un­der­way, with the lead be­ing taken by US com­pa­nies like Lock­heed Martin and Boe­ing. Some of th­ese sys­tems like Lock­heed Martin’s un­manned K-MAX he­li­copter has been suc­cess­fully de­ployed in Afghanistan to aug­ment Marine Corps ground and air lo­gis­tics oper­a­tions – as per avail­able data its per­for­mance has been ex­cep­tional. As per re­ports Siko­rsky in co­op­er­a­tion with the US Army has suc­cess­fully demon­strated op­tion­ally pi­loted flight of a ‘Black Hawk’ he­li­copter— the pro­gramme is called MU­RAL (manned/ un­manned re­sup­ply aerial lifter). This is a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment to­wards not only pro­vid­ing au­ton­o­mous cargo de­liv­ery ca­pa­bil­ity but also gives the com­man­der the flex­i­bil­ity of launch­ing crewed or un­crewed oper­a­tions de­pend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion. The navies the world over are closely mon­i­tor­ing th­ese devel­op­ments—ro­tary UAVs ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing from ship decks will be force mul­ti­pli­ers.


Tech­nol­ogy is driv­ing the mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tion of UAVs into re­mark­able ar­eas, with the pos­si­bil­i­ties seem­ingly end­less. A cru­cial piece of tech­nol­ogy that is re­quired to take UAVs to the next level is a ro­bust ‘sense and avoid’ sys­tem al­low­ing un­manned planes to fly safely in a con­gested airspace. UAVs are a crit­i­cal com­bat mul­ti­plier that is rapidly be­com­ing an or­ganic ne­ces­sity for all mod­ern armies. While the UAV is an in­no­va­tive weapon sys­tem, but it is not yet ca­pa­ble of re­plac­ing the manned air­craft, the main draw­backs be­ing the sit­u­a­tional aware­ness and the abil­ity to an­a­lyse its op­er­a­tional en­vi­ron­ment. The way for­ward is to in­te­grate manned and un­manned plat­forms and satel­lite-based sen­sors in or­der to at­tain an in­te­grated op­er­a­tional pic­ture.

Global Hawk UAVs have been used ex­ten­sively in Afghanistan for ISR

DRDO de­vel­oped Rus­tom-1 UAV pro­to­type

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