The MQ-9 SeaGuardian UAV operated by the Indian Navy, deployed at the Naval Air Station Rajali

Our security and technology architecture needs to keep pace with advancements in the unmanned aerial vehicle space

by Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur VM (Retd)

New Delhi: The destruction unleashed by armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia last year has brought these systems to the centre-stage of the security arena. The earliest demonstration of UAV capability was by Israel during the Bekaa Valley conflict with Syria in 1982. Unmanned drones launched by Israel had activated Syrian radars, thereby giving away their locations and Israeli fighter aircraft subsequently destroying them. Syrian aircraft that gave fight were blinded by electronic jamming. The result was the loss of 82 Syrian fighters as against a single Israeli aircraft.

In the South Caucasian conflict, Azerbaijan started with a similar feint, using an old AN-2 aircraft converted into a drone as bait for the Armenians. A report by the Washington-based think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), states that Armenia lost 26 surface-to-air missile systems, including a Tor and five S-300 systems, besides hundreds of tanks and vehicles. Azerbaijanian videos showed UAV strikes on bewildered Armenian soldiers on the ground. The psychological impact was overwhelming and Armenia settled for peace on humiliating terms. This was perhaps the first time UAVs had helped a country defeat conventional enemy forces and armour.

There are crucial takeaways from the conflict for India. First, small forces/ nations can develop asymmetric advantage with low-cost UAVs. Azerbaijan had the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed UAVs and Israeli loitering ‘suicide drones’ (which identify and destroy targets by impact). These beat the Armenian air defence primarily due to their small radar cross-section. Thus, at a fraction of the cost of highly expensive fighter jets, the cheap and expendable UAVs can pin down and destroy surface forces. If a technologically superior nation combines this with a ‘manned-unmanned’ team—wherein the manned fighter aircraft stays safe at a distance and controls a swarm of tied UAVs called ‘loyal wingmen’—an advantageous air situation can be created deep inside enemy territory, thereby changing the very fundamentals of air dominance.

Second, using UAVs, the expanse of the battlefield can be widened and in-depth areas made insecure. It would result in the adversary having to commit additional resources for air defence and securing its surface forces moving to the frontlines. Third, time—or the lack of it—becomes a critical aspect for the warring side under attack from UAVs. In the case of Armenia, the surface forces were under constant surveillance and were destroyed without any ability to fight back. What they needed was a system to detect and neutralise UAVs that would offer some lead time. In any case, the lead time would always be extremely small due to the small size of the expendable drones.

The fourth vital deduction is that artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomy will increasingly come into play for both the attacker and the defender. For the defender, to use the extremely small lead time to cue kinetic or directed energy weapons to engage the armed drones; for the attacker, to differentiate between war fighters and civilians and avoid collateral damage. Here, the decision-making cycle would be so fast that a man in the loop could result in delayed response, leading to either the target getting away or unnecessary killings. This could lead to inadvertent use of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) which, as the nomenclature suggests, are AI-enabled systems.

To put it simply, an AI-enabled drone would take the decision to kill a human. If a recent UN report on the Libyan conflict is correct, the first-ever use of LAWS has already been made through the Turkish origin Kargu-2 armed quadra-copters. ‘Logistics convoys and retreating HAF (troops) were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged bylethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 the lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability,’ states the report.

This is not only a pointer to the criticality of time in ensuring maximum gain from UAV capabilities but also to the fact that a country not giving AI due importance in the unmanned combat environment would suffer from negative technological asymmetry, which would be exploited by both state and non-state adversaries.

Is the security and technology architecture in India keeping pace with the advancements in the UAV space? The answer, unfortunately, is no. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has failed in its decades-long endeavour to produce a truly operational drone—incorporation of AI and autonomy is a far cry. The Rustom-2 (medium-altitude long-endurance drone) programme is nowhere on the horizon and India has had to import to plug gaps.

According to media reports, the presently held Heron UAVs are being modified for armed capability and armed Heron TP UAVs are being imported. Yes, there are periodic media releases about an HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited)-led Combined Air Teaming System being in the works as a manned-unmanned concept, as also the DRDO’s Ghatak Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle being on the drawing board. But, unfortunately, the track record of both projects does not inspire confidence.

Our adversaries, meanwhile, are in the fast lane. China is a world leader in UAVs. Its UAVs have been used by many countries in actual operations. Pakistan has used its Burraq UAV to strike ‘terrorist’ targets on the Afghan border. So, with the Indian Air Force (IAF) squadrons depleting, it is imperative that UAV capabilities be ramped up through imports and indigenous small UAV projects be fast-tracked so that numbers are available to ‘swarm’ the adversary.

Four steps are recommended towards this. First, UAV defences should be augmented with acquisition of detection technologies. Second, the electronic warfare (EW) capabilities of the armed forces should be enhanced and these should be equipped with kinetic and directed energy kill systems on priority. These systems, obviously, need to be integrated in the overall air defence architecture.

Third, a doctrine for the acquisition and use of UAVs should be drafted. And lastly, no time should be wasted in enlisting and supporting Indian private industry, which is teeming with bright young minds, to make up for the voids in the UAV arena. The private industry was deeply involved in the indigenous nuclear submarine project that the Indian government embarked upon on a mission mode; the UAV space is critical for India and must be pursued with similar focus and intent. India’s live frontiers do not leave us with any other option.