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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Indian Perspective


By Major General P K Chakravorty, VSM (Retd) Published: Feburary 2012

The UAV is an aerial vehicle with no pilot to man controls. They can be remotely controlled by personnel on ground or by pre-programmed flight plans.


Of 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 War.

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 UAVs

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 armies.

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 Army.

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 India

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 is useful.

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 vehicles.

This would help in providing real time battlefield transparency, direction of own artillery fire and PSDA.

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 tactical requirements.

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 direction.

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 inventories.

  © India Strategic  
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