late, the UAVs have become increasingly more sophisticated,
and the term UAV has been changed to UAS, an acronym
for Unmanned Aircraft System.
The change amplifies the fact that apart from
being an aerial vehicle, this complex system includes
ground stations, satellite connectivity, some
times onboard weapons, and other components. Militarily
these systems are gaining tremendous importance,
as they can conduct precision strikes on faraway
targets without collateral damage.
The earliest attempt to use the UAVs was as aerial
targets in 1915. The first operational usage began
in 1959 when the US Air Force (USAF) officers
commenced planning for unmanned flights to avoid
losing trained pilots over hostile territory.
This plan gained further momentum when Gary Powers
piloting a U-2 spy aircraft aircraft was shot
down over the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1960.
This propelled a classified UAV programme to be
started under the code name Red Wagon.
The UAVs were used in August 1964 in clashes
with the Vietnamese Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Thereafter, the USAF 100th Strategic Reconnaissance
Wing flew more than 3000 sorties during the Vietnam
The initial generation of UAVs were primarily
used for surveillance. With increased operational
requirements they were armed and they became known
as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles. (UCAVs). Broadly
military UAVs are used for surveillance, direction
of artillery fire, gathering Electronic Intelligence
(ELINT) information, lasing targets for fighter
aircraft and Post strike Damage Assessment (PSDA).
Classification of UAVs
The classification of UAVs in the US Armed Forces
follows a tier system. There are separate tiers
for the US Air Force, Marine Corps and the Army.
The United States Air Force tier commences with
the Small/Micro UAV filled by the Batmav (Wasp
Block III). Tier I consists of low altitude long
endurance represented by the Gnat 750. Tier II
consists of Medium Altitude, long endurance (MALE)
which currently has MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.
Tier II + has High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE)
UAV. These UAVs have an altitude ceiling of 60
to 65,000 ft, airspeed of 560 km per hour, radius
of 6,000 km and an endurance of 48 hours. The
role for this type of UAV is currently filled
by the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
Tier III is a high altitude, long endurance low
observable UAV. The parameters are similar to
the Tier II+ aircraft. RQ-170 Sentinel is in this
class of UAVs. The characteristics of the Marine
Corps tiers are similar except for the specific
UAV. With regard to the Micro UAV, Wasp III fills
the role. Tier I filled by RQ – 11B Raven B. Tier
II consists of Scan Eagle and RQ-2 Pioneer. Tier
III Pioneer and Shadow. The US Army which has
also inducted UAVs follows a similar pattern to
that of the US Marines.
India’s Acquisition of
The Indian Armed Forces have been operating UAVs
for over a decade. The Indian Army was the first
to acquire UAVs, in late 1990s from Israel, and
the Indian Air Force and Navy followed.
At the outset, DRDO was tasked to produce a catapult
launched UAV which was developed by its Aeronautical
Developmental Establishment, Bangalore and improved
to meet user requirements. Most of the UAVs of
the Indian Armed Forces were procured from IAI
Malat, whose UAVs were in service with numerous
The Indian Army initially obtained the Searcher
Mark I, followed by the Searcher Mark II which
could operate at an altitude ceiling of 15,000
ft and finally the Heron, which could operate
at an altitude ceiling of 30,000 ft. The Indian
Air Force immediately followed the Army and acquired
the Searcher Mark I followed by Searcher Mark
II and acquired the Heron UAVs prior to the Indian
The Indian Navy also acquired the Heron UAVs
which suited its long range off shore requirements.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that the Indian
Air Force has of late acquired the Harop, which
is more like a UCAV. Successive IAF Chiefs of
Staff from 2006 onwards have emphasized this capability
and IAF has plans to have fully operational both
UAV and UCAV squadrons by 2017.
Notably, Harop made its public debut at Aero
India in 2009. Built by Israel Aerospace Industries
(IAI), this hunter-killer drone does not carry
any munitions like the US UCAVs but is like a
flying missile and explodes itself on a pre-programmed
target. This missile-drone can loiter over a battlefield
and can be used against high value targets, including
for Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) missions.
The function of a UAV is determined by its payload.
The payload is directly related to the task. To
undertake surveillance, there would be the necessity
of carrying a Charged Couple Device (CCD) cameras
with Multi Optronic Software payload. For tasks
entails lasing, the bird would carry a Laser designator,
to facilitate pinpoint attacks by aircraft.
Similarly, for ELINT, a UAV would carry an ELINT
payload, and for hunter killer missions, appropriate
explosives which it can either launch or crash
with them into a designated target in an attack
and self-destruct mode.
In the event of undertaking an offensive task,
the payload would comprise the guidance system
with two suitably armed missiles.
Employment of UAVs in
UAVs are great force multipliers and there must
be synergy between the three Services to optimise
their employment. One good thing which is happening
in the recent years is that all acquisitions are
cleared by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, rotationally
headed by the senior most of the three Service
Chiefs, and they work now on common specifications
to the extent possible. The resulting coordination
The UAVs could be employed for multifarious tasks
fruitfully, in coordinated tasks.
Presently, the three Indian Services have a rather
limited numbers of these aerial vehicles and each
Service is looking towards its increasing individual
requirements. There should be a phenomenal rise
in their numbers in the coming years.
In as much as the Army is concerned, the Herons
are performing exceedingly well in surveillance
missions in the high altitude mountainous regions
as also providing critical information to manoeuvre
elements in the country’s Southern deserts. They
would be providing the target inputs for missiles
and also PSDA on engagement of targets. In fact,
this role has effectively been tested during exercises.
The Herons have been able to fly in dual role
and thereby fly at ranges of 400 km. In high altitude
areas, there are screening problems some times
but they are easily overcome through satellite
communications (SATCOM). That helps extend the
range of these systems to even 1000 km.
The Searcher Mark II is being used in the mountainous
region as also in the plains and semi deserts.
It is to the credit of Indian UAV pilots that
they have optimised the aerial vehicle successfully
under India’s varied and tough weather conditions.
The UAVs have provided excellent inputs about
any intrusions on the Line of Control (LoC) as
also on issues pertaining to terrain which assist
in operational planning.
There are issues though still about the quality
of pictures obtained while using the Synthetic
Aperture Radar (SAR). Recent international improvements
in SAR provide a clear image of the object, and
that is where the effort is headed now.
Many terrorists and militants in the north or
north-east regions of India hide in areas of thick
foliage. There is a need to obtain high quality
SAR devices to generate good images.
However, the Searcher Mark I variety is a short
range UAV which is being suitably used in the
hilly regions and plains. The Nishant, an indigenous
product manufactured by DRDO which is launched
from a vehicle and recovered by parachute, is
possibly under induction and would be utilised
in the plains. All UAVs presently held by the
Army are being controlled at the operational level
and serve the needs at the higher level.
There is a dire requirement of UAVs at the tactical
level which needs to be provided to force multiply
results at the ground level for undertaking missions
with accurate intelligence.
Further, in the Indian environment, there is
an immediate need to weaponise these unmanned
aerial platforms to destroy hostile targets with
precision. The UCAVs are operating in Afghanistan
and causing accurate destruction of pinpoint targets.
This has led to deaths of numerous top leaders
of Al Qaida leaders, thereby reducing the potency
of the establishment.
That is a good example for the armed forces
of any country, India included.
The tasks visualised are surveillance, particularly
of air fields, radars, air defence guns, field
defences and mechanised columns; thereafter deception
by using electronic payloads, destruction of selected
targets by loitering missiles, and then PSDA.
IAF’s Searcher Mark II and Heron are similar
to the systems held by the Indian Army while Harop,
the loitering missile, can be used in high density
conflict and counter insurgency for precision
strikes. It has a good, 1000 km range and six
hours endurance. Harop can be launched against
both land based and sea based targets. It detects
strong pulses from communication targets such
as missiles and radars and hits them at the source.
It is possible to launch the Harop from ground,
sea and air.
The Indian Navy presently has a squadron of Searcher
Mark II and Heron. They are located at Kochi and
Porbandar. Possibly two more squadrons are planned
for the southeastern coast and the Andaman & Nicobar
islands. All these UAVs are land based and are
controlled by the Command Headquarters. A requirement
of ship-based rotary UAVs which can function effectively
with a carrier task force and provide intimate
real time surveillance, is under consideration.
Planning for the Future
India’s present holdings of UAVs are extremely
low and there is a need for greater quantities
to meet battlefield requirements for the future.
The versatility of the UAVs has been demonstrated
particularly in strikes against terrorist camps
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is serious thinking in the UK Royal Air
Force (RAF) that 30 percent of the present strength
of fighter aircraft should be replaced by UCAVs.
The United States Navy already has plans for deploying
the unmanned Northop Grumman X 47-B Unmanned Combat
Air System (UAS) which was test flown at the Edwards
Air Force base in California recently. According
to a Northop Grumman statement, the programme
will demonstrate the first ever carrier launches
and recoveries by an autonomous unmanned aircraft
with a low observable platform. They would also
undertake autonomous aerial refueling.
This indicates the direction the world is heading
with regard to UAVs and UCAVs. Further, India
has to note that China has already featured its
Chang Hong-3 UCAV platforms in various defence
exhibitions in recent years. Considering China’s
developments in this field, the day is not far
when the illogically hostile Pakistan will receive
these Chinese built aerial systems.
The Indian Armed Forces have to judiciously examine
their future requirements of UAVs. In as much
as the Army is concerned at the strategic and
operational levels, there is a requirement for
UCAVs and short range loitering missiles. The
UCAVs could be formed on the Herons each of them
mounted with two Fire and Forget missiles. Each
divisional artillery brigade must have a battery
of UCAVs comprising eight aerial systems.
Further, each Corps must have a Loitering Missile
Battery consisting of eight missiles with associated
ground systems. At the tactical level there is
a need for Mini UAVs which would be hand launched.
They should have an endurance of two hours, range
of 10 km and a payload which can provide good
details of the area under surveillance.. In the
initial stages it would suffice if each infantry
battalion, combat group and artillery regiment
be provided with two systems each having two aerial
This would help in providing real time battlefield
transparency, direction of own artillery fire
The Air Force must acquire additional UCAVs and
also work towards developing a fighter UCAV. The
Navy must look at Rotary UAVs and UCAVs.
The future would also see the entry of directed
energy weapons. Needless to say, they would also
get mounted on UAVs for effective usage.
While the requirements are clear, the moot point
is what is the road map for their procurement.
DRDO has developed Nishant and is presently developing
Rustam, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE)
UAV. Any process undertaken must meet timelines,
as inordinate delay is operationally never acceptable.
Particularly, as technology keeps changing and
then, so do the requirements.
The Mini UAV is of simple technology and could
be indigenously developed. This could meet the
The UCAV and the loitering missile are being
produced by Israel which is willing to set up
joint ventures with DRDO. It would be prudent
if our inescapable requirements are fine-tuned
in cooperation with the selected Original Equipment
Manufacturers (OEMs) and then subsequent requirements
are delivered by Joint Ventures. The private sector
could be encouraged for participation in their
manufacture as well as research.
Various development issues, including technology
milestones, could be examined by the three Services
in conjunction with DRDO.
UAVs have played a crucial role during the AfPak
operations. Many top and mid-level Al Qaida and
Taliban leaders have been killed in US UCAV raids.
Their effective and successful use show a clear
The Indian Armed Forces apparently have a clear
road map and all the three Services should have
a substantial numbers of UAVs/ UCAVs/ UAS in their