Jammu Drone Attack | UAVs are force multipliers in future battlefields

The twin drone strikes on the Jammu air force station on June 27 bring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into sharp focus. The explosions happened within minutes of each other injuring at least two Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel and damaging infrastructure.

Initial investigation by security agencies points to the role of Pakistan-based terror groups in the attack. It also suggests the use of loitering munitions—UAVs with inbuilt guidance systems carrying explosives to hit targets on the ground. A couple of similar devices were later spotted in the area which escaped when troops opened fired.

While it is not unprecedented for drones from across the western border to fly into Indian territory to drop drugs and ammunition, this “first ever drone strike on India” has wider ramifications for the security matrix in the region.

Have terror groups operating from Pakistan been ‘gifted’ UAVs to execute strikes in India? Turkey, for instance, manufactures combat drones and loitering munitions and is known to have given them to its allies in the past. Ankara’s decisive role in the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh is a recent example of this generosity. Azerbaijan used Turkish Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) to destroy Armenian forces on the ground almost at will, as Armenian air defence systems watched helplessly. It is, therefore, quite possible that Islamabad received drone deliveries from Turkey. Or perhaps from China: Beijing’s UAV arsenal has advanced UCAVs, loitering munitions and even anti-drone platforms which can deceive or down incoming enemy drones.

With the United States pullout from Afghanistan around the corner, extremists aligned with the Taliban may be trying out new weapon systems in the subcontinent. If so, this is a wake-up call for India’s policymakers who have yet to fully appreciate the growing ubiquity of drones that could “change the very nature and character of warfare”,as Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said in a TV interview on June 28. Highlighting the need to deploy anti-drone technology, he said: “We must acquire drones as combat systems. But at the same time, we also need to develop technologies for countering it.”

UAVs have myriad applications—from delivering pizzas, shooting films, inspecting pipelines and power lines to spraying crops and helping cartographers. But like most technologies, UAVs are also double-edged swords, finding use as powerful weapons and force multipliers for the armed forces. The military UAV umbrella includes everything from aero-models and decoys to reconnaissance and armed drones; some provide commanders with real-time battlefield data to direct fire, while others can carry out precision strikes on targets miles away using satellite guidance. In fact, the latter are slowly taking over a range of dangerous missions that were flown by combat pilots earlier.

These robotic warriors have come a long way since the first UAVs Britain used in World War II evolved into the radio-controlled aerial vehicles developed in the US in the 1920s. From their initial roles as target drones (for training anti-aircraft gunners) in the 1930s, UAVs took on various avatars to become the indispensable robotic air warriors we see today. The first modern UCAV, however, appeared in the skies over the Golan Heights in 1973 during the Arab-Israeli war: ‘snooper’ drones that helped Israeli troops ambush advancing Arab armour. Israel pressed home the advantage subsequently in 1982, using its Hawkeye drones for force multiplication in the Bekaa Valley to defeat the Syrian Air Force.

The Jammu attack is a wake-up call for India to take stock of its limited UAV inventory, which includes the US-built SeaGuardian and Israel’s armed drones Searcher Mk 11 and Heron, and loitering munitionHarop. Plans are reportedly afoot to lease four long endurance Heron UAVs from Israel (specifically to keep an eye on Chinese forces along the LAC) and buy 30 advanced Reaper combat drones from the US.

The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is set to licence-produce Israel’s vaunted UCAVHeron TP (with air-to-surface missiles and laser guided bombs) in India while the indigenously produced Ghatak UCAV is expected to make its maiden flight next year. The indigenous tactical surveillance UAV Rustom also seems ready for induction into the army. It can provide round-the-clock cover for any part of land or sea, its powerful sensors identifying the sources of all radio transmissions on a wide range of frequencies.

It is force multipliers like these that will dictate terms on future battlefields—a fact acknowledged by land, sea and air forces around the world. Source

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