Intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities are core tasks

China continues to expand its unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) network and usage in areas close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

There is a significant increase in their use for a variety of tasks from intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities and logistics support, official sources said citing intelligence inputs. This follows an increasing trend in UAV deployment by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Tibet and along the LAC since the standoff began in eastern Ladakh in May 2020.

“It is learnt that flight sorties are being coordinated from a unified command centre and are extensively monitored for further improvement. Efforts are being made to cover all important locations, places in the UAV net for better patrolling and other related activities,” said an official source citing inputs. China is also increasingly deploying its advanced UAVs in Tibet close to the LAC, another official said.

In addition, drones have been used for supplying vaccines in the border areas for effective last mile coverage at several locations and especially opposite Arunachal Pradesh. As the armies of India and China prepared for winters in the high–altitude region, China had released videos of swarms of quadcopter drones being used to supply rations and other essential items to personnel deployed close on the border.

In line with this, the PLA UAV units have been regularly conducting exercises to finetune their employment. One such exercise was held in February according to inputs during which drones were packed with food, water and medicines for delivery to troops in remote areas.

Indigenous Satellite Communications

China is also trying to reduce its dependence on foreign origin Satphone communications and is promoting use of indigenously built Tiantong satellite communication system, officials said. The testing and use of the Tiantong system has been noticed at several locations along the northern borders and the latest being areas opposite Arunachal, according to inputs..

As the standoff continues, satellite imagery from October last year showed the deployment of the UAVs and fighter jets by the Chinese Air Force at Ngari Gunsa airbase located in the Ngari prefecture and is around 200 km from the Pangong Lake. Satellite images posted on Twitter by open source intelligence handle @detrasfa_ showed what are likely the CH-4 armed UAVs.

This is part of the massive expansion of infrastructure and runways, construction of habitat and support facilities which has continued in the last two years, even while the two sides were engaged in senior military commander talks for disengagement and de–escalation in eastern Ladakh to end the standoff.

Acknowledging that there is certainly an increase in the Chinese UAV activity along the LAC, military sources said they are keeping a close tab on them.

To counter it, the Army and the Air Force too are ramping up their own UAV fleets and upgrading the existing ones in inventory. Additional procurements are also in the pipeline including a proposal for 30 Predator armed drones, 10 for each Service, from the U.S.