The armed forces start placing their first orders for swarm drones but the need is to ramp up R&D for indigenous prowess in these battle-defining machines

Tiny rotors whirring, the quadcopters raced across the field, their electronic eyes scanning the ground. After a 15-minute flight, the drones located their target—a solitary T-55 battle tank. Their cameras matched its image with a library of onboard targets. The drones then proceeded to drop their payload on the tank.

The demonstration was performed at an army cantonment in Secunderabad this August as officials from the Indian Army’s Simulator Development Division (SDD) tested drones fielded by a handful of private vendors. Had this been a live combat situation, the shaped charges (explosives designed to transmit all their blast force downwards) dropped by the drone would have punched through the top of the tank—where its armour is the thinnest—destroying it. This is the concept the army was looking to prove: the ability of drone swarms to demolish tanks over the horizon, beyond the range of ground-based anti-tank missiles.

Based on these tests, the army last month placed two fast-track procurement orders, worth Rs 100 crore each, with two private firms. Bengaluru-based NewSpace Technologies is contracted to supply a weaponised swarm of 50 drones with a 25 km range. New Delhi-based Raphe mPhibr will provide a swarm of 50 cargo drones that can carry 4 kg payloads to a distance of 25 km. These are the first drone swarm procurements by Indian armed forces. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is rebooting a 2018 contest to identify developers who can offer a drone swarm that flies 100 km (50 km up and 50 km down), autonomously identifies targets, strikes at them and returns to the base after the mission. It will order at least 100 such units from one or multiple firms.

For the longest time, drones appeared to be the stuff of science fiction. In the six-week conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that ended last November, Azerbaijani forces used waves of weaponised Turkish drones to smash Armenian radars, air-defence missile systems, trucks and fortifications. The war proved that the days of standalone heavy units—tanks, artillery and missile systems—may be numbered. Back home, on June 27 this year, suspected Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists used two drones to attack an IAF airbase in Jammu. One of the drones dropped a military-grade shaped charge, which cut through an eight-inch concrete slab on the roof of a building at the base.

Next Level In Warfare

In swarms, packs of armed drones fly together in perfect symmetry, searching for targets. In case any drone takes a hit, others in the flock take over, effortlessly self-healing to continue the mission. They can be used for kamikaze missions to saturate enemy air defences, attack vehicles, aircraft and troops. They can also be used as anti-drone systems or deliver supplies to remote military units.

Drone swarms are cheap and can be mass-produced when compared to manned aircraft and helicopters or even cruise missiles and smart bombs. This is why militaries around the world want a drone swarm. The Israeli armed forces are believed to have made the first military use of a drone swarm. In their 11-day operation against terror group Hamas in May, Israeli quadcopter drones used artificial intelligence to monitor rockets launched by Hamas, directing aircraft and ground units to the launch pads.

Militaries around the world are keen on swarm drones as they are cheaper than aircraft, choppers, missiles and smart bombs, and can be mass-produced

Massed drones, or waves of remotely piloted vehicles equipped with sensors and weapons, have revolutionised warfare. They are ubiquitous, low cost and possess a formidable combination of reconnaissance and firepower. It is a capability India’s adversaries are fielding. China has used civil-military fusion, leveraging its civilian drone capabilities to create a pipeline of military drones. This became evident to the Indian Army deployed in Ladakh this year. Pakistan, too, has fielded a range of weaponised drones and is believed to have acquired Turkish ‘Kargu’ kamikaze drones, which can function as a single platform and be part of a swarm of up to 20 platforms.

The Indian military says it could well be looking at hybrid capabilities, with drone swarms enhancing the effectiveness of existing systems. Public sector aerospace firm HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) is working with NewSpace Technologies on an ‘Air Launched Flexible Asset’, wherein a manned fighter jet can release a drone swarm against ground-based targets. “Why should an artillery regiment have 18 guns? It could have a mix of drone swarms and fewer guns teaming up to do the spotting and shooting,” says a senior army officer.

Last year, the Shimla-based Army Training Command (ARTRAC) was asked to identify emerging technologies and harness the army’s in-house resources to meet challenges. On Army Day (January 15) this year, ARTRAC got NewSpace Technologies to demonstrate simulated attacks on ‘enemy’ tanks, fuel depots and ammunition dumps by a swarm of 75 drones. “Swarms will impact every aspect of conflict, from counterinsurgency to conventional war. A swarm’s exploitation is constrained only by imagination,” says Lt General P. Ravi Shankar, former DG, artillery.

A series of events has reshaped the army’s thinking. Drones have been used by India’s adversaries on both its active fronts. Since 2019, Pakistan-based terror groups have been using load-carrying drones to drop arms in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Chinese drones frequently flew over Indian Army positions in Ladakh during the nine-month standoff.

Swarm Drone Ecosystem

Swarm drone orders on Indian start-ups are minuscule in comparison to the multi-billion-dollar drone imports that the armed forces are pushing for. The three services plan to buy 30 Predator-B/ Sea Guardian/ Sky Guardian drones from US firm General Atomics for Rs 30,000 crore. These drones, perfected by over two decades of US investments in drone warfare, will mean enormous capability accretion for the forces (each service will get 10 drones). But since they are being bought off the shelf without transfer of technology, the deal will contribute nothing towards indigenous product development. The Rs 1,200 crore a piece price tag of the Predator-B drone is far in excess of all drone orders placed with Indian start-ups.

Drone superpowers like Turkey and Israel have shown that it takes years of painstaking investments in R&D to field weaponised drones. Months of back-breaking work is required to figure out aerodynamics, integrate sensors and perfect the algorithms and communication protocols.

If drone development is taking place at a snail’s pace in India, it is perhaps because of the way the ministry of defence (MoD) is structured. It is more inclined towards procurement than incubating cutting-edge technology or hand-holding start-ups. Baby steps towards promoting start-ups, with programmes like Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX), have yet to see the emergence of cutting-edge technologies.

This is why a swarm drone contest launched by the IAF in 2018 was considered a breakthrough move. Named after a maverick air force pilot, Air Commodore Mehar ‘Baba’ Singh, the Mehar Baba Prize has laid the building blocks of an indigenous start-up swarm drone ecosystem. The contest looked at identifying Indian firms that could field 20 drones with a capability of flying 50 km at 3,300 feet.

Besides Raphe mPhibr and NewSpace Technologies, three others—Veda Defence, Dhaksha Unmanned Systems and Delhi Technological University—were shortlisted for the contest. The IAF held tests in Pokhran for over two years, putting the drone swarms to rigorous and extensive tests. All firms met certain parameters but need more investments in R&D to reach the ultimate benchmark of a Level-3 militarised, weaponised drone swarm capable of autonomous operations. India’s swarm drone capabilities are currently at Level 2 (see above graphic). The fact that India sponsored a 2018 UN resolution against fully autonomous weapon systems means that even if it achieves this capability, it will have to ensure there is a human operator in the loop.

The IAF has so far invested Rs 25 crore in the Mehar Baba contest. The army was the beneficiary of the first round of the contest because it needs to strike within its tactical battle area (TBA) of 50 km. The IAF, which needs to be able to strike in a 50-200 km TBA, is looking at a rebooted contest later this year. Swarms flying 50 km where the system has to detect and attack targets without a human in the loop—the day of the swarm drone is around the corner. With it, perhaps a new paradigm of user-driven defence technology.