With even Pakistan now sporting an armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed with Chinese assistance, India has decided to accelerate the development of its own weaponized drone fleet. The process of weaponizing an indigenously developed UAV has commenced and the elements required to operate an armed drone fleet, such as a high accuracy satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS) and dedicated military communication satellites, are being put in place. Work is also underway on a stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).
Despite this, India still has to make some progress on the collision avoidance technology needed to give its drones the flexibility to use civilian airspace. It will also need to increase satellite bandwidth considerably to increase the tempo of armed UAV flights. In the next few years limited use of drone strikes near India’s borders on terrorist targets may be on the table, in keeping with the emerging Modi-Doval doctrine that authorized the recent cross-border strike in Myanmar.
While the Indian military has long operated Israeli Searcher and Heron drones for C4ISTAR roles and even possesses anti-radiation suicide drones from the same source, it does not as yet have missile firing drones such as the Predator its inventory. India is now looking to change that with its Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) beginning serious work on weaponizing the indigenously developed Rustom-I Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV.
According to the DRDO, it has integrated a locally developed anti-tank missile called the HELINA with the Rustom-I. Taxi trials have been completed, with flight trials expected to commence this year. The idea is to have the weaponized configuration of the Rustom-I ready by the middle of next year. This sudden urgency is perhaps in no small measure due to the recent test-firing of a laser guided missile by Pakistan’s Burraq drone, which was developed with Chinese assistance and which resembles the CASC CH-3 drone.
While integration with missiles such as the HELINA also indicate a potential anti-armor role for the Rustom-I, it could certainly be used in strikes on remote terrorist camps or for that matter on small vessels on the high seas. Indeed, the first military user of the Rustom-I is likely to be the Indian Navy rather than the Indian Army, which still wants certain features added to the Rustom-I before it agrees to induct it.
A key enabler for armed UAV flights in India would be the new domestically developed SBAS called GAGAN, which has already received certification for both en-route navigation as well as precision vertical guidance for assisting planes to land safely and beamed its first signals earlier this year. While GAGAN was designed to assist civil aviation in India, the enhancement of satellite navigation (SATNAV) signals that it provides is obviously available to Indian military users as well. Indeed, Indian defense scientists along with local industry have also developed a lightweight GAGAN receiver module that can be fitted aboard UAVs and is capable of receiving “refined” signals from the American GPS, Russian GLONASS, and Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System which will become fully operational in the near future.
GAGAN is crucial for waypoint navigation of Indian UAVs and will assist them to both “get back home” in the event of a link failure with their ground control stations (GCS) as well as make emergency landings on alternate airfields. Both of these aspects naturally assume even greater importance when a UAV carries on board weapons. Of course, the availability of high quality SATNAV signals are also very important for precision strike purposes.
Indian armed drones in the future will also be able to operate over extended ranges as the Indian military inducts more dedicated military communication satellites. Again, the Indian Navy is a front runner in this department having fully integrated the GSAT-7 communication satellite in its order of battle and used it to network ships and aircrafts in missile firing exercises. GSAT-7 can also relay signals in the Ku-band and this can be used to control Indian UAVs, which will feature a Ku-band transmitter data link. The Indian Air force and Army are meanwhile looking forward to their own joint military communication satellite called GSAT-7A, which will also have Ku-band transponders.
In some ways the stage is being set for the indigenous UCAV program that is currently focused on developing a sufficiently stealthy platform, release of weapons from an internal weapons bay, and materials for all-aspect stealth. The first flight of this UCAV is expected to take place in the early 2020s. By that time, the support elements required to exploit such a system are likely to have matured in India.
GAGAN notwithstanding, Indian armed UAV operations will remain restricted to military airspace until such time that India makes progress on a collision avoidance system. For this technology, India is currently tapping the U.S. and France, but it remains to be seen how much assistance will be forthcoming in this arena. Without a collision avoidance system, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation will obviously not conclude an agreement with the military to allow UAVs to transit civil airspace. Moreover until the Indian military can put up a large enough constellation of military communication satellites, armed drone operations will be somewhat limited in scope and tempo. There will be a reliance on short distance VHF links unless greater satellite bandwidth is made available. This means that Indian armed UAV operations will take place close to Indian airspace in the early years of deployment. It will also limit basing options for Indian armed drones.
In any case, the Rustom-I is not a long-range system and it is perhaps the Rustom-II, still under development and expected to be able to fly for up to 30 hours at a stretch, which will assume the mantle of India’s frontline armed drone in the years ahead. Development of the Rustom-II has been delayed on account of challenges with efficient design as well as the cancellation of export licenses by the U.S. State Department of the American origin actuators that were being used in the Rustom-II. India has now had to develop indigenous replacements for those actuators and the Rustom-II will fly with those this year.
The episode may, however, have catalyzed India’s ongoing bid to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement, both of which seek to restrict the flow of dual-use items that go into UAV development. India had voluntarily chosen to synchronize its export-control regimes with the MTCR in 2008 during the heyday of the Indo-U.S. nuclear civil agreement and is now looking to use its excellent non-proliferation record to ensure that such events do not get in the way of its UAV development programs by formally joining that association.
Indeed, unlike China, India’s armed UAV fleet will essentially be for its own use and not meant for the export market, something that is being signaled via its bid to join the MTCR. Armed drones for India are actually both a symmetric response to what the Chinese and Pakistanis have been doing in this arena as well as a response to asymmetric tactics being used by India’s rivals. Armed drones are intended to expand the response options available to the Indian military as it has to mount more operations to neutralize terrorist elements based out of remote facilities in neighboring countries.
The employment of armed drones for precision strikes will make it easier for the Indian military to neutralize targets of opportunity in scenarios where sending in special forces would be too risky or complicated. Once lightweight UAV specific munitions that minimize collateral damage become available, armed drones could also potentially prosecute targets co-located with civilian hamlets. Overall, the pursuit of armed drones is in consonance with the Modi-Doval doctrine which seeks to position India as a state that is not averse to deploying hard power for national security requirements.
Saurav Jha is a commentator on energy and security affairs. Follow him on Twitter @SJha1618