From surveillance to combat: Decoding India’s drone mission

Aswarm of drones covered the parade ground during the Army Day parade on January 15 this year as the Indian Army put up a unique display of its recently acquired indigenous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The Indian Army showed its new unmanned warfare tactics for the first time with the use of such drones.

Referred to as ‘swarm drones’, the tactic of unleashing a number of UAVs at the same time can wreak havoc, since jammers and radars fail to detect multiple drones and see the ‘swarm’ as just one big object

With a range of 50 km, these armed drones can make deep inroads behind enemy lines and are capable of hitting targets from a distance of 500 metres. The UAV has a mother drone that has an attached child drone meant to fire and self-destruct after hitting the target.

On Sunday, India saw a small glimpse of modern-day drone warfare as two bombs were dropped on the high-security Indian Air Force (IAF) station in Jammu.

The focus, after the incident in Jammu, is now on the future – unmanned warfare.

Drone attacks could cripple civilian infra

Drone attacks can be carried out by dropping bombs, firing missiles or crashing armed UAVs into the target. Stealth features allow drones to go near their targets, virtually undetected, by making deep penetrations.

The US armed forces have also embraced drone warfare, mostly in a bid to ensure fewer casualties. More recently, the Army of Azerbaijan used drones against Armenia during an armed conflict last year.

Not just military targets, but drones could also pose a threat to essential civilian infrastructure such as dams, power plants and bridges.

Indian Army chief Gen MM Naravane has gone on record to assert how the use of disruptive technologies such as drones is the future of warfare.

Aerial attacks involving drones loaded with missiles and laser-guided bombs, capable of destroying targets deep inside enemy territory, could soon be a reality for the Indian military looking to boost its unmanned warfare tactics.

India currently owns a few Heron Surveillance drones and the Harop loitering munition, for surveillance purposes. These drones are only used to gather intelligence, but the option to use them for offense is now on the table.

MQ9 Reaper drones: USD 3 billion deal on cards

A $3 billion deal for the purchase of 30 armed drones manufactured by US-based company General Atomics is likely in the coming months. If the deal goes through, the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force could each get 10 of these combat drones.

Key objectives of these unmanned aerial vehicles will include surveillance, reconnaissance for intelligence gathering and carrying out combat missions behind enemy lines without risking pilots or soldiers on the ground in tough mountainous terrain.

The MQ9 Reaper, also called a ‘Predator’ drone, can detect targets using its inbuilt sensors and radars.

It has an endurance of more than 27 hours and can carry payloads of up to nearly 1,700 kgs with a range of 6,000 nautical miles and flying capacity of up to 50,000 feet. It can even carry deadly hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.

The US forces have used ‘Predator B’ armed drones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

These High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones could prove to be critical to the Indian military’s operations in higher reaches of Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim in the wake of growing threats from China and Pakistan.

Features of these drones can vary based on the requirements of the Navy, Air Force and Army, said officials.

The plan is to have 30 of these drones – 10 each for the Army, Navy and Air Force. India can acquire these drones by purchasing them in batches in order to ensure the availability of some of them at the earliest.

The Indian Navy already has two such unarmed drones on lease, the Sea Guardians, which are a variant of the Predator.

CATS Warrior drones


With an eye on future challenges, private Indian companies and public sector units are working on technologies for unmanned warfare that will be the key in military combat in the years to come.

One such ambitious project is Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) CATS Warrior.

Modeled on the US project Skyborg, HAL’s ongoing project envisions a scenario where unmanned aircraft and vehicles will coordinate with manned fighter jets to carry out aerial strikes.

The Combined Air Teaming System or CATS will have a mother vehicle— a fighter jet operating 700 km away that will be able to strike enemy targets through unmanned drones.

The fighter jets guiding the unmanned drones can remain 150 km behind and control and give directions to four unmanned vehicles called the CATS Warriors.

The drones are expected to be integrated into Tejas and Jaguar fighter jets.

One of the first prototypes is expected to fly in the next 3-4 years. Capable of evading radar detection, its stealth capability will make the attack even more potent.

Other than unmanned combat vehicles, the main fighter aircraft will be integrated with armed drones— CATS Hunter and CATS Alpha.

CATS Alpha is a glider that will be able to carry four, eight, 16 or 24 ‘swarm drones’. The Alpha can glide 50 to 100 kilometers into enemy territory and carry out a swarm drone attack with multiple armed UAVs.

Switch drones for Army


In January this year, the Indian Army placed an order for indigenous Switch UAVs meant for day and night surveillance of high altitude areas. The cost for procurement of these UAVSs is approximately 20 million USD. Deliveries are expected by January 2022.

This UAV weighs 6.5 kg and has a range of 15 km with a flight time of up to two hours.

After bagging the contract for Switch UAVs, ideaForge said in a statement, “The contract marks a strategic shift in the Indian defence procurement process as the Indian Army goes on an aggressive modernization drive.”

“Switch UAV is an indigenous system built to cater for the most demanding surveillance operations of the Indian Forces. This Fixed Wing VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) UAV can be deployed at high altitude and harsh environments for day and night surveillance in Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. It is man-portable and has the highest time on target compared to any other UAV in its class,” the statement added.

SMASH 2000 anti-drone system


Detecting and neutralizing drones is a massive challenge and the attack in Jammu has revealed the chinks in our armour.

While the Indian Navy has already opted for Israeli anti-drone Smash rifles, the Jammu attack is a sign that other forces must take the cue to equip themselves in order to guard against drone attacks.

The SMASH 2000 system is fitted on a rifle and can be used to bring down drones. The system recognizes, tracks and engages targets in the air with precision.

The Indian Army has recently developed its own anti-drone capabilities without depending on other manufacturers.

With these systems and other anti-drone capabilities like jammers manufactured by the Indian Army to detect and bring down quad copters, preparations are on for artificial intelligence-based warfare.

The enhanced quad copter jamming system has a range of 3.5 km and has already been deployed at various locations along the Line of Control (LoC).

“They were recently operationalised and can detect and neutralise a quad copter,” said an Army official.

Rotary unmanned aerial vehicle


The rotary unmanned aerial vehicle or ‘drone helicopter’ is also in the pipeline. It is being developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and can operate at more than 15,000 feet.

The ‘drone helicopter’ will be crucial for speedy transportation of supplies in harsh high-altitude areas and can even replace mules.

Weighing 200 kg, the ‘drone helicopter’ can carry payloads of up to 30 kg to a range of 100 km.


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