The Defence Ministry’s decision to go in for swarm drones for the armed forces is learning from the ongoing Ukraine conflict where the Turkish Bayraktar drones deployed by Ukraine took a heavy toll on the Russian tanks. The wars of the future will be fought by weaponised, unmanned aerial platforms. Heavy artillery of the HIMARS genre, plus kamikaze drones will likely lead offensives. Once the enemy is stunned by the assault, armour and infantry will move in for the kill

by KV Ramesh

The Defence Ministry's announcement that it was clearing the acquisition of swarm drones for the Indian armed forces surprised none. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh's announcement that the government had cleared arms procurement proposals worth Rs 28,732 crore, including swarm drones is but a logical decision.

The package announced by Singh and cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council headed by him included approval to acquire four lakh close-quarter battle carbines and bulletproof jackets with advanced tech was aimed at combating the "current complex paradigm of conventional and hybrid warfare" and terrorism at the borders, a Defence Ministry press release said.

The ministry said the armed swarm drones were being acquired as drone technology has proved to be a force multiplier in military operations.

"In the recent conflicts across the world, drone technology proved to be a force multiplier in military operations. Accordingly, to augment the Indian Army's capability in modern warfare, AoN for procurement of autonomous surveillance and armed drone swarms has been accorded by the DAC under Buy (Indian-IDDM) category," the defence ministry note to the media said.

It also spoke of the approval of an Indian Navy proposal to procure an upgraded 1,250-KW capacity marine gas turbine generator for power generation application onboard the Kolkata class of warships to be manufactured by Indian industry, and a proposal to acquire 14 fast patrol vessels (FPVs) for the Indian Coast Guard, with 60 per cent indigenous content.

Swarm drones are the new buzz among defence planners the world over. The concept of drones, or unmanned aerial platforms began attracting attention in the 90s, and initially their light weight and limited range saw them being used in reconnaissance roles.

But the US army developed armed drones like the Reaper and Predator and the success in deploying effectively against hostile targets in Afghanistan consolidated weaponised drones as part of militaries' offensive capability.

The Americans were the initial pioneers in drone development, but soon the Chinese became the world's mass producer of drones for a range of roles including commercial photography.

But integrated, layered air defence systems could even bring down missile-carrying fixed-wing drones due to their larger radar signature and slow speed, and the cost of producing them was not inconsiderable.

So, the next development was turning the drones themselves into weapons, called the loitering munitions. The concept was simple: Instead of the drone carrying a missile that it would fire against hostile targets, the drone would itself be a flying missile that would cruise in air over the contested space in the battlefield, choose its target and crash into it.

In other words, these are suicide or kamikaze drones. They are, in effect, a marriage of machine, AI and explosive warheads.

The advantage of kamikaze drones is that in a saturated battlefield, a swarm of them, launched in the battlefield either from the ground, through catapult systems, modified mortar tubes or launched by air, would swarm over the enemy forces, identify targets such as tanks, APCs or artillery and launch themselves into them with lethal effect, with little no reaction time left for the targets.

As suicide drones, they are not recoverable after use. They are a one-time weapon.

The advantages of swarm drones are that launched in a swarm, their small radar signature and sheer numbers can defeat radar arrays, with at least a few getting through, hitting their targets and causing unaffordable damage.

Moreover, the smaller drones, whether they are fixed wing or quadcopters, are inexpensive consumables. Unlike mortars used by armies, loitering munitions are more accurate and cause damage inordinate to their size and cost. Moreover soldiers do not need large air fields to launch them. Furthermore, the mobile launchers enable the users to fire and shift their locations in order to escape air attacks.

That is why defence forces the world over are now trying to replace their battlefield legacy systems like rockets and mortars with swarm drones. Loitering munitions have been validated in battlefield conditions in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, where the Houthi rebels have used swarms to attack the Saudi oil terminals effectively.

But the killer drones established themselves as the weapon of the future in the Azerbaijan-Armenian war over Nagorno-Karabakh province in 2020. The deployment of suicide drones supplied by Turkey such as the Bayraktar, and Israeli-made Harpy devastated the Armenian positions, and won the war for the Azeris.

And in the ongoing war, the drones such as Switchblade supplied by the Americans, along with man-portable anti-armour systems like Javelin, have helped the Ukrainians to inflict heavy damage on the Russian forces in the early stages of the war.

The Russians, always slow to react to disruptive technological developments, did not take to drones as enthusiastically as the Americans, Chinese or the Israelis. That explains the recent reports that they have approached the Iranians for a hundred systems of the swarm drones for use in the war against the Ukrainians.

By early this year, many armies in the world had inducted the kamikaze drones in their battle formations. These include Azerbaijan, China, Germany, the US, Israel, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

The systems they have deployed include the American Coyote and Switchblade, the Israeli Harpy and Harop, the China-made CH-901 and WS-43, and South Korea's Devil Killer.

There are concerns surrounding the swarm drones too. Many defence analysts worry about leaving it to AI to make autonomous decision to identify and attack a target.

The possibility of technological errors leading to innocent people being killed, a charge against that the US drone operations have faced in Afghanistan, besides the possibility of such lethal man-portable systems falling into terrorist hands have haunted many defence establishments.

As for India, it already has the Harpy and Harop drones in its inventory, and its decision to develop indigenous swarm drone capability has not come too soon.

The MoD has already placed loitering munitions in the import ban category.

Three such munitions, two fixed wing variants and a hexacopter, developed by Economic Explosives Ltd in partnership with Bangalore-based start-up Z Motion Autonomous System Pvt Ltd were tested by the Indian Army at an altitude of 15,000 feet in Nubra Valley.

A couple of other Indian start-ups too have been mandated by the MoD to develop such systems. The Indian-made loitering munitions are expected to be at least 40 per cent cheaper than those imported from Israel and are likely to be mass produced soon.