Employment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones is a revolution in the making. Drone warfare is one of the most important combat-strategy developments of this century. It is proliferating rapidly and is likely to become even more potent in the coming years.
Drones are designed to deliver air strikes in a ground-guided, pilotless flight that is capable of dropping bombs, firing missiles, or even crashing into a target. These UAVs are equally useful in peacetime too, for gathering critical intelligence.
Development of drones was originally driven by commercial and agricultural demands, later finding a market in the military. Today, its presence in the armed forces is as crucial as that of tanks, mechanised armoured vehicles and fighter aircraft in the last century. As compared to fighter jets, drones serve as a low-cost weapon system, affordable to poor countries that could potentially become capable of damage and creating chaos against powerful adversaries with better traditional military capability.
Battle using drones helps reduce loss of human life. Precision is yet another advantage of using drones in the battlefield. It lowers the risk to military personnel and has less political and military ramifications.
A remote control war through the use of drones has become institutionalised as one of the major counter insurgency/terrorist strategy of the US since 9/11. The US has conducted a large number of drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, including attacks on non-state actors and important terrorist leadership. Turkey has employed drones against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Nigeria has used it against the Boko Haram, Iraq against the ISIS and Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Libya and Yemen. Because of the widespread use of drones in conflicts, their employment in military operations is no longer a taboo as is apparent from the recent conflict in Armenia-Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh).
Employment of drones for offensive operations has been extremely effective from Syria to Libya and on to Nagorno-Karabakh. It is important to note that in these conflicts, drones were employed against well-equipped and well-trained forces, and not against the ill equipped armies of poor countries. In all three conflicts, employment was in the face of some of the best anti-aircraft missile defence system produced by Russia. The victory of Azerbaijan over Armenia showed the perfection of the art of drone. Azerbaijan employed Turkish and Israeli-made drones and exhibited the disparity of costs between the drone and the military assets it can destroy.
Being UAVs, drones are able to digitally and instantly provide precious operational information about the battlefield. They enhance situational awareness and target damage assessment. They have the ability to hover over a target, watching it continuously in remote and difficult areas. They are able to reach targets and obtain similar impact with lesser consequences than the penetration of hostile airspace by an aircraft.
Drones have applications beyond military use. Some regulatory frameworks exist for commercial and civilian purposes, but there are no guidelines for military application. Therefore, the use of drone technology by the military is likely to proliferate making it a lucrative option for terrorists, insurgents and non-state actors. It could become an ideal low-cost weapon system for state-sponsored terrorism.
Drones, when combined with human intelligence, can also be effective in locating and targeting known terrorist operatives. They can be employed with comparatively lower risk to life unlike piloted aircraft or ground forces. They can be employed for limiting terrorist capabilities and reducing collateral damage. This makes it more suitable for covert warfare.
We have approximately 15,000 km of land border and a coastline of over 7,500 km, including island territories. We have a turbulent and unstable neighbourhood and a wide range of non-traditional threats. China and Pakistan are our two nuclear neighbours with whom we have unresolved border disputes. Our external threats range from traditional land-centric due to disputed borders to sub-conventional, including the export of terror from across the borders. There are reports of Pakistan and China routinely sending drones into the Indian airspace. Securing the borders against hostile forces is critical to the country’s security.
The Indian armed forces have been using drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Weaponised drones which are emerging as an essential technology in asymmetric warfare have not been employed by the forces. It is, therefore, important to take a note of key developments in drone warfare to cater to these threat manifestations.
India is facing and is likely to continue to face low-level conflicts which necessitate low intensity of retaliation to avoid an all-out war. Our adversaries, especially Pakistan, should not be permitted to get away with the idea that India would hesitate to retaliate militarily against terrorist attacks. Therefore, there is a need to have low intensity retaliation capacity. Drones can inflict pointed damage on distant targets as they are particularly suitable for low-level conflicts and appropriate response in the event of Pathankot and Pulwama-like incidents. Along with focusing on expensive fighter planes, there is a need to lay emphasis on low-cost drones also and develop a comprehensive strategy for their use in our offensive as also defensive plans.
China has emerged as a major player in global arms trade. From being one of the biggest importers, it has become a leading global arms supplier, including that of UAVs. The known capability of China and Turkey in drone technology and their relationship with Pakistan is a cause of concern for India. There is a likelihood of these technologies falling in the hands of extremist groups, posing a big security risk. Therefore, a need to take note of these developments and work on a roadmap and strategy for acquisition and employment of drones is critical. It is needed to counter the envisaged drone threat to India from the neighbourhood.