Armed Drones: The Game-Changer

The recent Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict is indeed the first kind of modern warfare won almost entirely on the strength of drone warfare. This definitely will have severe implications on modern warfare making countries globally including India to realign their military strategies with emphasis on armed or weaponized Drones or UAVs.

The use of Drones also referred as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has been increasing in battleground across the world and the current conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is no exception. Backed by far superior military equipment and an airborne fleet of Israeli and Turkish drones, Azerbaijan’s Army was able to have a substantial military edge and was able to swiftly target and inflict major damage on Armenian tanks, heavy weapons and even air defence systems. To be noted that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan started on 27 September, over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region with both the sides agreeing on signing a ceasefire agreement in Nov 2020. Previously also, the two countries were involved in a war over the region in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the cease fire declared in 1994.

What is more astonishing is the fact that back in the 1990s, it was the Armenians who had trumped Azerbaijan. But decades later the tables seem to have turned around with the extensive use of Drones, specifically the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made Kamikaze drones, by Azerbaijan, giving it a clear edge in the recent conflict. Noticeably, the two drones can carry bombs of up to 55 kg and 15 kg respectively. Basically, Azerbaijan’s modus operandi was using the surveillance drones to mark the targets and subsequently sending armed drones to destroy them. On the other hand, Armenia only dependent on conventional weaponry including of tanks, artillery and air defence systems. Well, of course, an Army sitting on the ground and Air Force with combat piloted aircrafts cannot fight a enemy that is having considerable quantity of surveillance as well as Armed drones and more so having considerable knowledge in using these drones.

It would not be wrong to say that this is actually the first kind of modern warfare that has been won almost entirely on the strength of drone warfare. This definitely can have severe implications on modern warfare making countries world over including India to realign their military strategies with emphasis on UAVs or drones.

The Rising of Armed Drones

Drones have been primarily used for patrolling and reconnaissance by militaries of the countries across the world. However, in recent years, with their growing requirement and the increased risks involved in the operations, the existing UAVs are being armed and converted for combat missions by several countries. These are likely to change the future concept of battle by providing an edge. As happened in the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict in which these were used heavily by the former and led to one sided win.

Drones have been primarily used for patrolling and reconnaissance by militaries across the world. However, in recent years, armed and converted for combat missions by several countries because of the advantages such as cost effective and precision they have over other weaponries. .

Basically, an armed drone or Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) is an UAV that usually carries combat payloads, like missiles. They are generally surveillance and reconnaissance drones with combat payloads which loiters over the battlefield with its remote operator searching for targets. Once found, the drone is flown into the target, destroying both itself and the target. They can conduct precision strikes on faraway targets without much collateral damage. Aircraft of this type have no onboard human pilot. These drones are usually under real-time human control, with varying levels of autonomy. They are used in drone strikes.

Worth mentioning, a weaponized UAV platform offers the same capability as the guided missile of Brilliant Anti-Tank (BAT) weapon system, which had a series of small, unpowered glide-bomb sub-munitions that could be released from a guided-missile platform originally fired from a plane to destroy tanks. However, the armed UAVs offer distinctive advantages of size, operator safety and cost in comparison to these munitions and also over conventional manned aircraft or long-range cruise missiles; thus allowing it to undertake operations in higher risk airspace. Moreover, assuming safe return of the UAV platform, remote strike offers a cheaper alternative to the cruise missile variant, as similar effect can be achieved through the use of smaller, more affordable weapons and also successful in neutralizing the designated targets.

Further, another technology, namely, swarm/fleet of Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is also catching up fast amongst militaries worldwide and has the potential to revolutionize the dynamics of aerial warfare. Moreover, these can be armed as well and can cause massive destruction in times of conflict. Basically, a swarm/fleet of Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is a set of aerial robots that work collectively and autonomously make decisions to realize a specific goal based on shared information. These are capable enough of working together to overpower any kind of adversaries Noteworthy, every UAV/Drone in a swarm is determined by a definite number of rotors and has the capability to Vertically Hover, Take-Off and Land (VTOL). Many countries like US, China and Russia has been able to successfully develop these.

Manned Vs Unmanned Platform

The developed countries are seriously thinking to replace the manned platform with unmanned platform (UAV/UCAV/UAS) of the tactical aircraft inventory in a ratio of 30 % to 50% by late mid-2020s and eventually to 80% by the end of the next decade.

Though weaponized drones are expensive (but less expensive than a fighter jet), nevertheless, still they are now being preferred because of their various advantages as mentioned above. Based on type, the UCAV market is segmented into fixed-wing, and rotary-wing. The fixed-wing segment includes suicide drones and delta-wing structure combat drones. Current generation UAVs can be categorised into four groups:

  • Micro/Mini UAV
  • Tactical UAV
  • Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE)
  • High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) UAV

While first generation hunter-killers such as the MQ-9 Reaper are already in operation, there is significant development on a new generation, of this class of UAVs, in particular as part of the UK-French collaboration Scavenger programme. In addition, countries, like the United States, India, China, Iran, Israel, and Russia, among others, have invested in such combat UAVs. China is currently using stealth technology in unmanned platforms and is unveiling more UCAV variants. The country recently announced that the state-owned China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) is developing Cai Hong 7, a high-altitude UCAV. Similarly, Russia unveiled the prototype of Okhotnik (Hunter), a heavy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Such developments in the UCAVs are expected to generate high demand for this segment in coming years. At present, seventeen countries have armed UAVs, and more than 100 countries use UAVs in a military capacity.

Further, as per estimations, the world's ten largest operators will be spending approx. $8 billion on units in 2019. Further, the US is forecast to buy 1,000 of them up to 2028, far ahead of China's 68 and Russia's 48.

Where Does India Stands In terms of Armed or Weaponized Drones?

So far, the Indian Defence Services have been using the fixed-wing drones just for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) purposes for over two decades. However, they do not have much substantial inventory of armed or weaponized drones and neither this have not been used by India. Undeniably, this is now emerging to be an essential technology in the context of today’s asymmetric warfare, and thus India needs to gear up with respect to having this technology in its arsenal. It’s time India thinks of technology, and not just manpower, to counter the enemy in a battlefield.

Indian Defence Services have been only using the fixed-wing drones just for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) purposes for over two decades. However, they do not have much substantial inventory of armed or weaponized drones and need to build a robust inventory for future potential attacks.

As of now, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has few armed drones, namely Harpy & Harop, UCAVs in its inventory procured from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). These UCAVs are hunter-killer drone but do not carry any munitions like the US UCAVs but acts like a flying missile and explodes itself on a pre-programmed target. This can loiter over a battlefield and can be used against high value targets, including Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) missions. Suppression can be accomplished both by physically destroying the systems and by disrupting and deceiving them through electronic warfare. It can be launched from ground, sea and air and after detecting the strong pulses from communication targets such as missiles and radars, hits them at the source. These UCAVs, in modern warfare SEAD missions can constitute as much as 30% of all sorties launched initially during a combat and thereafter at a reduced rate through the rest of the battle.

As for the Indian Army, there is definitely a need for UCAVs for its battle requirements. But, as of now there has been no procurement in this regard. The Army basically needs the UCAVs particularly for surgical strikes across the Line of Control apart for surveillance missions.

India is also considering some foreign procurement of armed UAVs or UCAVs as well. Rather the IAF has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to global OEMs for an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) with low radar cross-section, high service ceiling, an expected range of 500 nm (925 km) and the capability to carry precision-guided weapons in an internal weapons bay. Also, the Ministry of Defence is currently negotiating with Israeli Aerospace Industry (IAI) to not only upgrade the existing fleet of 90 Heron drones of the Armed Forces but also arm them with laser-guided bombs, precision-guided munitions and anti-tank missile. As of now, this technical upgradation and arming Heron drone is at contract negotiating committee level. Besides, India has also decided to go in for 30 American MQ 9B armed drone instead of Sea Guardian surveillance drone with cost and numbers being worked out.

Some of the RFIs issued in last few years in this segment are mentioned below:

However, one should not forget that these procurements come at a high cost. So, India should focus on investing bigger on indigenous drone technology rather than ending up buying expensive armed drones from abroad, numbers of which will be too less to give any capability prowess over the enemy in a war. Though some indigenous development programmes has been undertaken but the country is lagging behind. The first programme to be mentioned is development of the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) or Ghatak which is an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) for the Indian Air Force by India’s R&D institute DRDO. The AURA UCAV will be a tactical stealth aircraft built largely with composites, and capable of delivering laser-guided strike weapons. It would be a stealthy flying-wing concept aircraft with internal weapons and a turbofan engine. This program is in the developmental stage with Rs 3000 Crores already being sanctioned by the Defence Ministry. Ghatak will be used by both the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.

Also, Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), the Bangalore-based lab of DRDO with HAL-BEL as the production partners are developing Rustom-II (also known as TAPAS 201), India's indigenously developed long-endurance combat-capable drone. Rustom-2 is capable of carrying different combinations of payloads depending on the mission objectives including synthetic aperture radar, electronic intelligence systems and situational awareness systems. It has a satellite communication link to relay situation in the battle theatre on real time basis. The UAV can also be used as an unmanned armed combat vehicle on the lines of the US's Predator drone. As of now it is undergoing test trials and thereafter user trials. All the three Armed Forces and also the Coast Guard have all expressed strong interest in the Rustom-II, though as of now there are no firm orders.

India, has also taken steps in equipping itself with swarm/fleet of Drones or UAVs technology. DPSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) along with a private sector start-up company NewSpace Research and Technologies is developing a swarm drone system known as the ‘Air-Launched Flexible Asset (ALFA-S)’ designed to be launched from fighter aircraft as well as transport aircrafts. It is expected that the ALFA-S prototype is most likely to be ready in two years. It has also commenced with the process of developing a stealthy Artificial Intelligence enabled munition-loaded semi-autonomous robot known as ‘Wingman’ which would function in a fleet teaming with a fighter jet, providing it with necessary protection and surveillance, thus safeguarding the operator while also broadening the extent of cross-border tasks.

The Indian Air Force and Army have plans to have fully operational UAV and UCAV squadrons in near future. India's present holdings of UAVs and UCAVs or Armed Drones is not substantial enough and there is a need for greater quantities to meet battlefield requirements for today’s modern warfare. The Air Force must acquire additional UCAVs and also work towards developing a fighter UCAV. They need to have a balance fleet of manned & unmanned aircrafts for the future battle scenario. The future would also see the entry of directed energy weapons mounted on UAVs for effective usage.

Counter-Drone Technologies

Also, it is worth mentioning over here that as the requirement of UAVs grows up; concerns would also grow around the potential security threats leading to the requirement of (induction and manufacturing) of ‘Counter-Drone or UAV Technologies’, to alleviate the risks that come along with it. A complete and effective Counter UAV system is capable of timely identifying/detecting, tracking as well as intercepting/neutralizing these risks arising from UAV/Drone usage. The countries globally will also be focussing on this technology to counter the UAV attacks.

The Bottom-Line

Clearly, the future belongs to Armed UAVs as they are indeed game changers. The Armenia and Azerbaijan clash have once again highlighted the efficacy of UACVs in warfare to the fore. It also highlighted the vulnerabilities of even sophisticated weapons systems, tanks, radars and surface-to-air missiles without specific drone defences. This will certainly pave way for countries including India in having a robust inventory of these systems in their Armed Forces.

In the end, we can only say that though armed drones or UCAVs have indeed emerged as the future of new warfare. They will certainly occupy the most prominent place in modern warfare and undoubtedly can change the dimensions of conflicts once dominated by ground battles and traditional air power. But, it should not be forgotten that ultimately to win a battle, these armed drones or UCAVs need to be backed by superior military equipment and efficient ground forces.

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