“Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.”– Giulio Douhet
For long, defence establishments around the world have been working and preparing for the future that would be unmanned. Videos of the Israeli-made Harop loitering munitions, reportedly used by Azerbaijan during the war with neighbouring Armenia, in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, give some idea of their pinpoint destruction capability, and the psychological effect, and indicate how autonomous aerial weapons are changing the future of warfare. The drones can automatically follow a flight path and choose the optimum climb and dive path for the final attack. Earlier in September 2019, drones were used to attack the Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The USA extensively used drone strikes against targets as part of the ‘War on Terror’. On 3 January 2020, a United States drone attack near Baghdad International airport targeted and killed Iranian Major General Wasem Soleimani while he was on his way to meet the Iraqi Prime Minister. In November 2020, the French used Mirage jets and drones to launch missiles to neutralise insurgents in Mali. Russia recently tested its S-70 Okhotnik-B heavy attack drone in an air-to-air combat simulation at the Ashuluk training grounds, an exercise that aimed to assess its compatibility with the Su-57 stealth fighter in an unmanned wingman role.
Remotely controlled aircraft, called drones, were used during the early years of aviation, as aerial targets for practising the firing of a battleship’s guns, in the 1920s. A commonly used term by the military is the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. The term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) evolved around 2005. Nowadays there are many non-military applications such as aerial photography, product deliveries, agriculture, policing and surveillance, infrastructure inspections, science, and smuggling, among others.
An unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), also known as a combat drone is basically a normal UAV that also carries ordnance such as missiles/bombs. The UCAVs are more manoeuvrable and attack targets using ‘stand-off’ weaponry, greatly depersonalising the decision, considerably reducing casualties among the attackers, and sometimes raising ethical questions. The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) resulted in greater flight and decision making autonomy, and UAV operations became free of human involvement/interference. Large UAVs can be tackled in the standard way by the country’s air defences. The smaller hobbyist drones that can be easily bought off-the-shelf, could also be used for an armed attack, and are also a great threat today.
UAS could be classified on the weight, wherein, nano (weighing below 250 g), micro (250 g – 2 kg), small (2-25 kg), medium (25-150 kg), and large (over 150 kg). They are also classified by the degree of autonomy. Further, there are altitude and range combinations like hand-held (2,000 ft altitude, 2 km range), close (5,000 ft, 10 km), med-range (10,000 ft, 50 km), tactical (18,000 ft, 160 km), medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE, 30,000 ft, 200 km), and high altitude, long-endurance (HALE, over 30,000 ft, indefinite range). A supersonic or hypersonic UAV could fly above 50,000 ft going up to suborbital altitude.
Large UAV Operational Missions
UAVs are fast taking on all roles that once were flown by manned aerial platforms. These include Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR); weapon delivery, including missiles and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM); logistics support functions, aerial refuelling, and aerial targets for weapon training. These drones could fly at very high altitudes and have long endurance. Solar-powered drones or those after aerial refuelling can fly for days. Traditionally they would fly the Dull, Dirty, or Dangerous missions. Dull means long boring reconnaissance missions. Dirty missions were those flown in a nuclear, biological or chemical battlefield environment. Dangerous missions involve penetrating contested air space or opening corridors or short time windows for fighters to surge into, or targets requiring long-range precision fires. UAS’ are also being used for missions like electronic-attack and other non-lethal effects. The UAS swarm could also act as a multi-strike decoy or saturate the enemy defences through sheer numbers. UAS will be a must to lead into territories with integrated air defences. UAS will continue to act as an eye-in-the-sky, and also mark targets for Laser weapons and support to direct fires. The Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUMT) implies that there are manned aircraft coordinating and controlling with a large number of drones in the package.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are now undertaking all missions including heavy-lift cargo. The world is in a transition. There are dual-use (optionally manned) aircraft. USAF has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely. For a long, the Russians have been using unmanned MiG-21s as targets. In France, Dassault leads a multi-nation project for delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000. UK has a Strategic UAS program ‘Taranis’. UAS are taking-off and landing by themselves including on the moving aircraft carrier (Northrop Grumman X-47B). Autonomous air refuelling has been tested. USA’s new strike bomber is likely to be optionally manned. Uninhabited helicopter convoys will deliver supplies to troops deployed on combat front lines. Coordinated UAS swarms have been tested by many countries. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. USAF’s UAS vision document indicates that by the year 2047 every mission would be unmanned.
No Endurance Constraints
Unlike human pilots, UAS endurance is not constrained by physiological limits. Highly fuel-efficient engines increase range and payload. Aerial refuelling is adding to the endurance. Hydrogen fuel cells may extend the endurance of small drones, for up to several hours. Micro UAS use flapping wings. Solar-electric UAS have achieved flight times of several weeks. Solar-powered atmospheric systems operating at altitudes exceeding 20 km may one day operate for as long as five years. Electric UAS powered by microwave power transmission or laser power beaming is another potential endurance solution. RQ-4 Global Hawk, a full-scale operational unmanned system flew for 33 hours in 2008. QinetiQ Zephyr Solar Electric flew for 336 hours in July 2010.
World Wide Action
UAS are today used by most countries, with a few making their own. UAS already outnumber the manned aircraft in US Armed Forces. During theatre level operations in Afghanistan UAS flew nearly 200,000 hours a year. The USA is also the lead manufacturer of large and combat UAVs with Israel a close second. The leading civil drone manufacturing country is China. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are among the world’s leading manufacturers. Chengdu plant of China makes the major Chinese UAVs like Wing Loong series, and the Guizhou plant makes WZ-2000. IAI’s Harpy, Harop, Searcher and Heron are flying the world over in large numbers, including in India. Elbit’s Hermes 450 assault UAS carries two missiles. Miniature UAS are being used for visual and audio snooping operating in small confines like rooms or bunkers. Rotary winged UAS (RUAS) such as Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scouts are increasing in numbers. As per U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as of January 2022, 857,771 drones are registered, of which 327,047 are commercial drones, and 527,112 are recreational drones. 258,337 Remote Pilots are certified. The debate between manned vs. unmanned need not be a binary one. Offloading some manned tasks to UAS will help aircrew focus on other critical areas requiring human interface. Even Armed UAS are intensively manned, albeit at stand-off safe haven control centres.
Concept of Autonomous Drones Evolves
The concept of ‘autonomous drones’ is that they can act based on their own choice of options or ‘system initiative’ and ‘full autonomy‘. Such drones are programmed with a large number of alternative responses to the different challenges they may meet in performing their mission. One of the greatest challenges for the development and approval of aircraft with such technology is that it is extremely difficult to develop satisfactory validation systems, which would ensure that the technology is safe and acts like humans. At another level, autonomy could mean ‘artificial intelligence’ systems that learn and even self-develop possible courses of action.
AI and Drone Swarms
UAV Swarming has been possible due to recent advances in chip technology and software for robotics, and it has become feasible to design machines exhibiting complex behaviour, achieve mutual coordination and accomplish complex tasks. Aerial robots can ascend synchronously, communicate with each other in mid-air and create cross-references. Fixed formation group flights and complex group manoeuvres are possible. The swarm of drones behaves and functions somewhat like swarms occurring in nature, e.g., honeybee swarms, flying in coordination, displaying collective intelligence and each executing a small share of the collective task. Very small Drones – some weighing less than five pounds – can cause a devastating effect if they are armed with weapons, and flown in a swarm of large numbers. Drone swarms can be both remotely operated or fly autonomously or may accompany ground vehicles and other aircraft. Even single getting through could be potentially lethal. Terrorists and other militants can also operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons. In 2016, China demonstrated drone swarming using 119 larger, fixed-wing, drones. In January 2017, the US Air Force carried out trials with 103 Perdix quadcopter drones functioning as a swarm. The trial included airdropping of these drones on the battlefield from canisters carried by three F/A-18 fighter aircraft, gathering the drones in a swarm and then proceeding to engage targets in the battlefield. During the Indian Army parade in January 2021, a live demonstration showcased a swarm of 75 drones destroying a variety of simulated targets in explosive kamikaze attacks. Russia has also demonstrated drone swarms. An indigenous 1,000 drone swarm was demonstrated during Beating the Retreat on 29 January 2022 in New Delhi.
UAS Operational Capabilities
Armed UAS or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) such as the General Atomics Predator and Reaper carry air-to-ground missiles and have great combat abilities. MQ-1 Predator is armed with Hellfire missiles and is being used as a platform for ground attack. UAS like RQ-9 Reaper is being used to patrol and secure borders. Payloads like synthetic aperture radar can penetrate clouds, rain or fog, in the daytime, or night-time conditions. On the other hand, the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk operates virtually autonomously giving live feedback and only needs a command to ‘Take-off and Land’. Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) are being deployed on the battlefield.
UAS has become a too attractive and potent military asset for any significant power to ignore. USAF trains more UAS pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. UAS have much lower training costs and can best concentrate on ISR, close air support. UCAV is now a “first day of the war” force enabler that complements a strike package by performing the SEAD mission and pre-emptive destruction of sophisticated enemy integrated air defences in advance of the strike package. The air superiority missions could still be handled by manned fighters which are better in a dynamic environment. Full-fledged air-to-air combat capability increased autonomy and UAS-specific munitions are part of the roadmap. As a measure of relative cost, the MQ-9 Reaper costs US$ 12 million while an F-35 costs around US$ 95 million. UAS operate at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Costs (LCC) of current manned systems.
The Unconventional UAS Threat
Terrorists, criminals, fanatics, and others find UAVs versatile, stealthy, and cheap airborne weapons. UAVs are also on the shopping lists of drug cartels, human smugglers, and corporate spies. Their prices have dropped to less than that of a TV set. UAS can threaten airspace security through unintentional collision, or even a deliberate attack or it could be loaded with dangerous payloads and crashed into vulnerable targets. Payloads could include explosives, chemical, radiological, biological hazards, or even nuclear payloads. Decision-makers must take into account the possible use of UAS by terrorists or unfriendly regimes. Ethical concerns and UAS-related accidents have driven nations to regulate the use of UAS. The export of UAS or technology capable of carrying a 500 kg payload at least 300 km is restricted in many countries by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Most countries have clampdown on all illegal UAS. The immediate concern for all is a possible low-level drone attack.
Counter Drone Technology
Counters to UAVs (C-UAV) have evolved. Detection requires a combination of radar, radio frequency (RF), electro-optical (EO), infrared (IR), and acoustic sensors. Interdiction would be through direct bullet firing, jamming RF and GPS signals, spoofing, lasers, cyber-attacks, physical nets to entangle the target, projectiles, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), camouflage and concealment, water projectors, birds of prey or using another drone for a direct-hit, and combinations of those. C-UAVs could be ground or air-based. Drone swarms have some weaknesses and limitations too. Their offensive could also be blunted through a counter-drone swarm. In January 2018, Russia confirmed a swarm drone attack on its military base in Syria. Six of these small-size UAVs were reportedly intercepted and taken under control by the Russian EW units. The drones had satellite navigation electronics and carried professionally assembled improvised explosive devices (IEDs). USA is now deploying new radars like the Q-53 system that can detect and identify such small objects and then initiate the kill chain using laser weapons. Lockheed Martin ‘Skunk Works’ engineers are doing research, to develop and implement the technology that will detect and defeat swarms. A 60-kilowatt system that combines multiple fibre lasers to generate the high power weapon of parallel beams. Cyber solutions to defeat drones are by using multi-spectral sensor systems to detect and then using cyber electromagnetic to either disable the drone or physically take over and divert. Hundreds of companies around the world are reportedly working on C-UAV systems. US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects, and China’s Scientific Research Steering Committee are leading the research.
Large UAVs can be detected using air defence radars. Their physical positioning at airfields can be seen using surveillance satellites. Small drones being fairly small, and having low radar cross-section (RCS), are not easy to detect by conventional radar. Drones can be stored and carried in a small suitcase, as such search and find operations are complex. Since drones could be flown from rooftops or from small alleys, tracking launching place is not easy. The drone makes a very little sound and can be heard only when in very close vicinity, as such detection could be much delayed. Drones also have no, or low, smoke or infra-red (IR) signature, and cannot be seen by such sensors. Yes, there are some avian radars used at airports. These radars are designed to detect birds, normally up to 15-20 kilometres and are used mainly to check the approach path for bird activities and to mitigate the risk of bird strike. Even the IAF has invested in some. These radars do have limitations in built-up areas. Having such radars for all military or all sensitive installations is not a practical cost-effective solution.
Large UAVs can be neutralised as any other aircraft. A fighter aircraft can shoot it down. Nowadays armed helicopters or even UAVs are being used to intercept and destroy a UAV. Finally, the ground-based air defence weapons systems can shoot down the UAV. The smaller drones can be neutralised by various kinetic and non-kinetic means. Depending on the distance at which it is declared hostile, a sniper rifle or a small arm can be used to shoot it. There are specially designed anti-drone guns that can fire a net that will entangle and bring down the drone. Drones can be neutralised by using laser, microwave power, or other forms of directed energy weapons to burn or blind the drone electronics and optical systems. This energy could also trigger the warhead to explode far away from the target. Using electronic warfare techniques to jam the line-of-sight link between the drone and operative could be another option. Even the GPS receiver of the drone could be jammed, making it incapable of navigation. Jamming the satellite link would also decapitate the drone. The jamming of the drone camera would greatly reduce its capability. Clearly, there are many ways to neutralise a hostile drone.
Defence against a Drone Swarm
A drone swarm will normally be used by a professional force, but considering the emerging openly available technologies, such threats would also have to be factored in. Drones can be neutralised by mass jamming of the interconnecting data links, and by using directed energy weapons. A cyber-attack could neutralise the commands being sent to the swarm from its ground station. Also, a counter-drone swarm can engage a drone swarm.
Ethical and Legal Issues
With no pilot inside, there is a risk of lowering the bar to using force. There is a risk that a drone operator sitting in a safe haven at thousands of miles from the actual action could treat the entire event as a video game. Autonomous drones, when they are used during armed conflict, would be subject to the general principles and rules of the Law of Armed Conflict. In this respect, autonomous drones are not to be distinguished from any other weapon system. The delegation of life-and-death decisions to non-human agents is being questioned by those who oppose autonomous weapons systems. As with any ‘means of warfare’, autonomous drones must only be directed at lawful targets (military objectives and combatants) and attacks must not be expected to cause excessive collateral damage or be detrimental to humanity. In the case of smaller drones also ethical and legal issues would have to evolve.
Drone Policy and Regulation
Drones are going to be important daily-life facilitators. Curbing its use excessively would mean denying technology access to the masses. Therefore all policies must facilitate the use of drones in a regulated manner. The drones would have to be categorised by weight, range and altitude envelopes. Any policy would look at, and prevent the risk of collision. Like the rules of the air, there would have to be regulations and control, including for emergencies. No flight permission may be required up to a certain height. There will be prohibitive areas, like no-fly zones. There could be features like ‘No permission – no take-off’ (NPNT), real-time tracking beacon, geo-fencing etc. Most countries including India have put in place regulations for UAS operations. UAS weighing below 250 grams will follow the powered aero-model regulations. Large-sized ones will have to be registered in India with DGCA or equivalent foreign agencies. They will require air traffic clearances and also have to follow air routes like other aircraft. The Drone Rules, 2021 have been released by the Ministry of Civil Aviation. They specify the need for drone certification. General safety features like no person shall operate a drone in any manner, either directly or indirectly, so as to endanger the safety and security of any person or property. Each drone must have a unique identification number, and be registered like we register arms. A Remote Pilot Licence would be a mandatory requirement. Drone traffic management is another area for regulation. There would be a need for insurance for a third party, similar to provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, and compensation factored in for damage to life and/or property caused by such a drone.
Current Indian UAS Capability
No one shares high-end UAS technologies. Indian Armed Forces operate nearly 150 Israeli Heron and Searcher II. Heron can operate up to a maximum of 52 hours’ duration at up to 10.5 km (35,000 ft). Practical endurance will depend on the actual payload. The Searcher is a scaled-up, variant of the Scout UAV, has a more powerful engine and can carry updated avionics and sensor systems with greater flight endurance as well as increased redundancy for improved survivability. These are also operating in insurgency prone Jammu and Kashmir to sanitize the border and in remote regions of Ladakh helping incursion management. Indian Navy is covering part of the coastline, and now into the Indian Ocean. Indian Air Force (IAF) also uses them for target lasing, Battle Damage Assessment in addition to ISR functions. In Naxal prone areas UAS are tracking possible movements and also directing security forces to the targets. Even the numbers have to increase significantly. India’s National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) also operates UAVs. The IAI Harpy is a loitering munition, designed to attack radar systems and is optimised for the suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) role. It carries a high explosive warhead and has a range of 500 kilometres. Significant numbers were purchased by IAF. The IAI Harop (Harpy 2) is also a loitering munition which is essentially an anti-radiation drone that can either operate fully autonomously, using its anti-radar homing system or have a human-in-the-loop mode. The Harop was publicly unveiled to the world for the first time in India, in the lead-up to the Aero India 2009 show. In February 2019, the IAF decided to add another 54 Harop drones to its earlier fleet of around 110 and has renamed them P-4. An advanced version is the Heron TP. In 2020, the Indian Navy received two Predator drones on lease from the U.S., primarily for surveillance over the Indian Ocean. The two non-weaponised MQ-9B drones were leased for one year with the option of extending the period by another year. The Drones are under the full operational control of the Indian Navy and it will have exclusive access to all the information that the drone will capture. The only role of the American firm is to ensure the availability of the two drones based on the contract signed. Meanwhile, India is likely to seal a $3 billion Predator drone deal with the U.S. for 30 more drones, ten each for the three services.
IAF’s Offensive and Defence UAS Operations
UAVs have a great role in real-time day and night reconnaissance and border surveillance, electronic intelligence (ELINT), Communication Intelligence (COMINT), Tactical Battle Area (TBA) observation, surveillance of enemy shores and coastal facilities. The Electro-Optical (EO) and Infra-Red (IR) will also support reconnaissance. Forward-Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) would penetrate camouflage, and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) could be another pay-load. Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) will help create enemy order of Battle (ORBAT). ISR will help create target folders for near border airfields and army deployments. IAF is also acquiring small drones for airfield security. These will be critical for front tier airfields.
The offensive missions would include Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) operations. UAVs are a great platform for electronic warfare. UCAVs will carry out battlefield strikes, anti-tank missions, and interdiction missions. They could also fly counter-air missions against first tear airfields and radars. They will support directing close air support and armoured manoeuvre, artillery fire adjustment, radio relay missions and battle damage assessment. They can act as radio relays for Special Forces operations. UAVs can be used for offensive action to knock down other UAVs or even engage helicopters with aerial weapons. In due course, IAF must endeavour to hand over more missions to UAVs. There is a need for integration of UAVs in offensive missions and later have MUMT. IAF needs to build drone swarming capabilities for offensive missions. Such swarms could inundate the enemy air defences and also be used to attack adversary airfield infrastructure.
Future of Unmanned Systems
Lethal autonomous weapons (LAWs) can independently search and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions. The autonomy of current systems has mostly been restricted in the sense that a human gives the final command to attack, though certain ‘defensive’ systems have greater freedom. Autonomous weapons are today capable of deciding a course of action, from a number of alternatives, without depending on human oversight and control, although these may still be present. Soon B-1, B-52 or C-130 flying aircraft carriers will launch and retrieve drones. China too is investing heavily in automated weapons systems and platforms. There are also UAS that operate at hypersonic speeds and sub-orbital altitudes, or even faster in low-earth orbit. Newer ones also employ stealth technology. Next-Generation UAS rotorcraft will have a great tactical role including for the Armies and Navies who cannot continue to be dependent on runways.
Indigenous UAS and Way Ahead India
India is conscious of Chinese UCAV designs that are aggressively taking shape. WZ-2000 is a long endurance version of Global hawk class UAS. Shenyang’s ‘Dark Sword’ is the stealth forward-swept wing UCAV of the Boeing X-45 class. Developed in Pakistan, ‘Burraq’ (Chinese UCAV design) and ‘Shahpar’ surveillance UAS were inducted in late 2013. Turkey is already a significant UAV manufacturer. The Indian DRDO’s UAS ‘Nishant’ is tasked with intelligence gathering over enemy territory, reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, damage assessment, ELINT and SIGINT. It has an endurance of around four hours. DRDO is also developing autonomous stealth UCAV for IAF ‘AURA’, named ‘Ghatak’. It will be similar in design to Northrop Grumman ‘B-2 Spirit’ flying-wing and capable of releasing missiles and precision bombs. DRDO’s ‘Rustam’ UAS is meant to replace the Israeli ‘Heron’ in all three services one day. A large number of Indian companies showcased small UAVs at the Def Expo 2020. Some have entered joint ventures with foreign companies for technology. “Atmanirbharta” (indigenisation) is now being pushed. Some of the Indian players in the UAV market include Paras Defence & Space Technologies in tie-up with manufacturers in Israel, Latvia, & Italy. Zomato acquired TechEagle, a Lucknow-based drone start-up making hybrid multi-rotor drones. Zen Technologies is a Hyderabad based drone tech company. They have secured a big order from the IAF for the supply of counter unmanned aircraft systems (CUAS). RattanIndia Enterprises has invested in US-based Matternet, the world’s most extensive urban drone logistics platform, and has wholly-owned subsidiary NeoSky India. Info Edge (India) has made investments in Bangalore-based Skylark Drones. DCM Shriram Industries has made arrangements with Zyrone Dynamics, a Turkish UAV, and drone manufacturer. Bangalore based Newspace Research and Technologies Pvt Ltd is working on cutting edge solutions for aerospace in industrial UAVs, and collective robotics. Adani Aerospace and Defence is manufacturing the Hermes 900 MALE (Medium Altitude Long Range) UAV with Elbit Systems of Israel.
Mixed manned and unmanned air formations might be an opportunity for future conflicts. India has to make a serious beginning to develop AI-based weapon systems and platforms to stem the excessive technological gap. There is a need to encourage start-ups with initiatives like IAF’s Mehar Baba competition. Physically what counts is the systems inducted into Armed Forces. India has to get its act right.
The Article by the Author was first published in the Indian Defence Review. The same has been updated.
Header Image Source: Harop UAV. Image Credit IAI