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.
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.
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.
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