Military & Aerospace

Drones: The Game Changers in Future Wars
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By S Gopal
Issue Vol. 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015 | Date : 22 Sep , 2015

Predator launching a Hellfire missile

High operational reliability is an essential prerequisite for UAVs. A good engine is the most difficult aspect in the designing of a UAV. Designers have to make sure that the engine can support the airframe and the UAV has a low signature through low vibration. It should be able to support long-endurance missions over the target. Another area of operational reliability for a UAV comes from its airframe, which should be able to support the mission in all types of conditions, especially rough weather. There is a flipside to the development of the drones globally. A recent report by the Rand Corporation warned that, in the future, terrorist groups might be able to buy small, armed drones, “Smaller systems could become the next IEDs – low-cost, low-tech weapons that are only of limited lethality individually but can cause considerable attrition when used in large numbers over time.”

In all, 87 nations in the world today possess drones and conduct surveillance…

Down the ages weapons of war have become increasingly lethal providing an operational edge to the side which possessed technological superiority. World War I witnessed the introduction of aircraft that were employed as a platform initially for reconnaissance and later for bombing, aerial combat and chemical warfare. In World War II, the use of aircraft to shatter the morale of adversaries proved to be a game changer. This was witnessed in the bombing of London by Nazi planes, the devastation of Dresden by the British and the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US that led to surrender by Japan.

The game changer for any future war will be the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as “drones”. Armed drones such as the Predator are already in use by the US against the Al Qaeda in Yemen and Pakistan. The Israeli armed forces believe that the drone is the future war-horse and the country with the best drone technology would be the winner in a future war. The Israeli Air Force has therefore been re-equipping fighter squadrons with UAVs. So far, the USA, Britain and Israel are the only nations to have fired missiles from drones.

UAVs are also shifting from purely military to civilian roles such as aerial survey, weather monitoring, disaster management and law enforcement. The US Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems has estimated that the commercial drone industry will create over 100,000 jobs and generate over $82 billion over the next decade. The use of drones has however raised serious concerns about safety of civilian air traffic as also infringement of privacy. Regulations need to be suitable modified to address these concerns.

The demand for UAVs is expected to quadruple by the end of this decade…

Several countries employ drones today. China monitors Japanese activities near the disputed islands in the South China Sea as also industries violating pollution laws. Turkey tracks Kurdish activity in Northern Iraq, Bolivia locates cocoa fields in the Andes and Syria monitors activities of rebels. National borders are now monitored by drones in many countries.

In all, 87 nations in the world today possess drones and conduct surveillance either over their own territories or beyond. Of these, 26 have either purchased or developed drones equivalent in size to the US MQ-1 Predator. Considerable work is also being done on Micro Air Vehicles that are small aerial vehicles with flapping wings. Israel is the second largest drone manufacturer after the US. India too is developing drones that will fire missiles and fly at 30,000 feet. Already operating Chinese drones for surveillance, Pakistan now plans to acquire armed drones from China. Iran has a drone that Ahmadinejad the former President described as the “Ambassador of Death”. Iran brought down an American drone by hacking into its communication nodes. The US is developing a carrier-based drone to provide sea-based support in the Pacific.

Dutch scientists have developed the world’s smallest autonomous flapping-wing drone, the DelFly Explorer, a dragonfly-like machine. Using two tiny low-resolution video cameras, replicating 3-D vision and linked to an onboard computer, it can avoid flying into obstructions. The DelFly Explorer has a wingspan of 28 cm and like an insect, can fly around plants enabling it to detect ripe fruits or pest infestation.

List of Countries Possessing Drones (Courtesy: Washington Times)

With success in the employment of UAVs recorded by the US in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as also by Israel in several operations, the demand for UAVs is expected to quadruple by the end of this decade. Germany, Italy and South Africa have joined Israel in exporting drones. Many countries are now launching their own drone manufacturing programmes. Global spending on the technology is expected to jump from an estimated $6.6 billion this year to $11.4 billion in 2022.

As a weapon of war, apart from keeping own personnel out of harm’s way, an armed drone is cost-effective. For example, the MQ9-Reaper, from US General Atomics Aeronautical Systems costs $10.5 million while an F-22 fighter jet costs $377 million.

Israel, a pioneer of drone technology, has emerged as a major exporter of aircraft and accessories…

China is getting into the game of exports of drones. Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, stated that since the US does not export armed drones, China would take advantage of this gap in the market.” According to the Centre for New American Security, in the 21st century, the US will be focusing on cyber warfare tools, guided munitions and mass production of automated drones, fleets of which would be stealthily flying over battlefields. US defence strategy is now based on technological superiority over potential adversaries.

Increasingly reluctant to put ‘boots on ground’ the US would resort to the use of armed drones in future battles. This is even now a reality to some extent, when in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan drones are being flown by controllers sitting in Nevada. Killer drones such as Predator which have been widely used by the US in recent times in Pakistan and Yemen to deal with “terrorists”, have been causing collateral damage resulting in loss of innocent lives, something that has made the US much hated in these countries.

Drones can be used for missions currently undertaken by manned aircraft such as Close Air Support, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR), air interdiction, maritime strike, communications relay, delivery of cargo, aerial refueling, combat search and rescue. Next-generation drones are expected to have multi-mission and all-weather capabilities with autonomy. Unlike the current drones which have primarily operated in benign environment, in future, they may have to operate in hostile environment. One important aspect is protection of datalinks with the drone by encryption. In mission mode, drones can be made modular, an ability to mix and match weapons and sensors to meet mission requirements.

RQ-4 Global Hawk

United States

RQ-4 Global Hawk. It provides communications relay with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node payload and a multi-intelligence collection capability through a combination of electro-optical/infrared and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery and a Signals Intelligence payload. They are also capable of long-range, high-resolution SAR imagery and ground moving target indicator.

RQ 180. Resembling the X-47B, this is a stealth drone being developed by the USAF for long-range reconnaissance missions. Currently in the testing phase, it could be operational by 2015. It was developed for ISR missions but could also be capable of electronic attack missions. It is designed to fly at high altitude and has an endurance of 24 hours. It has a 130-foot wing span and a “cranked kite” stealthy design to enable it to slip past enemy radar.

The game changer for any future war will now be the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as “drones”…

BAMS-D. The US Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) unmanned aircraft supports intelligence-gathering missions in the Middle East. Based on the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system designed for land surveillance, the BAMS-D systems were modified to work in a maritime environment.

Taranis. Of stealth design, the Taranis UAV can manoeuvre in ways that would cause a human to black out if they were onboard. And crucially, it is a step on the way to drones that can make autonomous targeting decisions.

VTOL. DARPA is developing a UAV called Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) capable of Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) which would carry one of several types of detachable modules, each designed for specific missions such as ISR, casualty evacuation and cargo resupply. It will have flexible, terrain-independent transportation that avoids ground-based threats. The final variant would be a drone that can buzz around air space connecting to a variety of modules such as vehicles or special container units. The ARES drone will be utilised as a UAV that would be able to set military units down in dangerous environments. It was created as a ground vehicle that is capable of configuring into a VTOL air vehicle that provides sufficient flight performance and range with respectable payload. The US Department of Defence is funding work on unmanned combat aircraft, including Northrop Grumman’s X-47, a diamond-shaped drone that can operate from aircraft carriers.

Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS). These include the RQ-11 Raven and Wasp-III. They can be operated either remotely or on pre-programmed autonomous routes and can be expendable or recoverable. Some like MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, RQ-4 Global Hawk and RQ-170 Sentinel can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload. Over 100 of them are in service in the USAF.

The IAI Harop is an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) which, instead of holding a separate high-explosive warhead, is itself the munition…


Israel, a pioneer of drone technology, has emerged as a major exporter of aircraft and accessories. A report by Frost & Sullivan states that from 2005 to 2012, Israel exported $4.6 billion worth of aircraft, payloads, operating systems as well as command and control caravans. US overseas sales for the same period were around $3 billion. Drones proved effective in the wars in Gaza, providing its troops eyes over its enemies in congested urban areas of Palestine and are lauded for saving the lives of dozens of soldiers. They also keep watch on neighboring Syria and Lebanon.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Elbit Systems and Aeronautics Defense Systems have begun producing drones first for Israel’s military, then branching out worldwide. Israeli drones have flown in conflict zones around the world, from Afghanistan to Mali. Britain and Brazil are among the biggest clients. It is reported that a major Israeli deal with India for UAV upgrade is worth $958 million. IAI, considered the leading Israeli unmanned aerial system exporter, sells drones to 49 customers worldwide and 80 per cent of its UAV products are destined for foreign markets.

Heron TP. The IAI has produced one of the world’s largest drones, the Heron TP, which has a wingspan of 26 metres and endurance of 45 hours. It is equipped with a radar that can scan swaths of territory even during the most inhospitable weather conditions. Software can detect movements on the ground in real-time. A laser beamed from a drone can guide a missile fired from a nearby jet. Cameras transmit high-definition footage of enemy activity below.

IAI Harop

Harop. The IAI Harop is an Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) which, instead of holding a separate high-explosive warhead, is itself the munition. It is designed to loiter over the battlefield and attack targets by self-destructing into them. The IAI Harop can be launched from ground, sea or air. Unlike the fully autonomous Harpy, the Harop is remotely controlled. The Harop features two guidance modes. It can either home in on radio emissions with its anti-radar homing system or the operator can select static or moving targets detected by the aircraft’s electro-optical sensor. The latter mode allows the Harop to attack radars that are shut down thus not providing emissions for the aircraft to automatically home in.

Super Heron. The Super Heron is an upgraded version of the “Shoval”, the first Heron-type drone that entered service in 2007. It features a heavy fuel engine and a propulsion system that enables it to operate at an altitude of 30,000 feet, fly 1,000 km when linked to satellite communications and remain aloft for 45 hours. Among other features, it has triple-redundant avionics, processing capabilities, operational flexibility and simple integration of more diversified payloads. It has been used in Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance (ISTAR), maritime patrol and other missions.

The Heron family continues to be dominated by the Heron TP, also known as Eitan, a fourth- generation craft currently with the Israeli Air Force. It can be armed with missiles for long-range strategic strike. As per IAI, its various drones have accumulated over 1.1 million operational flight hours around the world, while the Heron family has accumulated 250,000 operational flight hours worldwide.


The first drone was designed and manufactured in 1958. It however undertook serious development of the pilotless aircraft in the 1960s. One of the first Chinese UAVs was partially developed by reverse engineering a “Firebee” UAV that was lost over China. China also acquired Russian Lavochkin target drones. By the 1980s, China had developed the Changkong (CH)-1 drones, WZ-5 high altitude photographic reconnaissance aircraft and small remotely controlled aircraft D4s.

The PLA Navy is exploring the possible applications of VTUAVs including their use in anti-submarine warfare…

The pilotless aircraft design and research organisations were founded in the three universities, Xian’s Northwest Polytechnic University and the Beijing and Nanjing Universities of Aeronautics and Astronautics which have been used as the bases with the capabilities of design and small-scale production. In addition to satisfying the needs of both military and civilian applications, Chinese drones are now entering the world market. Initially UAV programmes were based on US and Russian designs.

However, China has now designed mini, micro, VTOL and flapping-wing UAVs. In the past few years, China has produced dual-use versions, such as the W-50 UAV for reconnaissance, radio-relay and electronic jamming. The ASN-206 is used for night reconnaissance, battlefield surveillance, target location, artillery fire correction and battle damage assessment. Over 40 different types of UAVs have been manufactured in the past 50 years and a total over 1,500 UAV were delivered by Chinese firm ASN that commands over 90 per cent of the Chinese UAV market. Authoritative estimates are that the PLAAF alone had over 280 UAVs in service by 2011.

The TianYi is modeled after a Global Hawk class High Altitude, Long Endurance (HALE) UAV and began testing in 2009. It is a new Chinese UAV design with a 60,000-ft. cruising altitude, 480km radar range and low radar reflectivity that could serve as the targeting node for China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles. The Guizhou WZ-2000, displayed at the 2000 Zhuhai airshow, is a squat twin-jet powered delta-wing High Altitude Long Endurance UAV, which has evolved into a medium-sized UAV and appeared to form the basis for an armed turbofan powered UCAV similar in size to the US General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

S Gopal

S Gopal, former head of Aviation Research Centre, New Delhi.

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5 thoughts on “Drones: The Game Changers in Future Wars

  1. I forgotten to mention a valid point in my comments. If we start using large scale so pilots will loose the job. Whether India afford to do it. We are spending millions of money to maintain the fighter planes helicopters etc. We can save large quantity of aviation fuel. Equipment necessary for a human pilot (such as the cockpit, armor, ejection seat, flight controls, and environmental controls for pressure and oxygen) are not needed, as the operator runs the vehicle from a remote terminal, resulting in a lower weight and size than a manned aircraft. Even engineering students in India are started making the same. We have the technical know how. The other day I watched a video showing a man made sea gull flying . by an engineering student. USA has developed man made insects and birds for bugging.

  2. We cannot come to a conclusion after analyzing the performance of UAV used by USA . UAVs are successful in Iraq and Afghanistan because the enemy do not have missile to use against the them. UAV is only a weapon carrying vehicle . USA developed U2 plane to spy USSR. But USSR was able to shot down the U2 plane at a height of 70000 feet. The fact is that none of the weapon carrying vehicles will be able to escape from multiple missiles.attacks. I have no doubt that whoever has got better missiles and its avionics. will be able to win the future wars. All our missiles have better range than any fighter planes and Helicopters. Majority of Pakistan installations are with in the striking distance of our missiles. Once the Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS), is read we need not have to use UAV or planes for surveillance. So we are unnecessary spending billions of dollar on ships fighter air crafts and helicopters.

  3. On reading this article, two things straight come to my head are India will be able to manufacture different types of UAVs successfully under a JV / independently to deploy them in military and civil activities.

    So the so called future weapon can cause a lot of problem for. But on the other if India is selected as NATO country then there is a good chance to use drones. S Gopal I am not an expert but ordinary citizen. Correct me if I am wrong.

  4. Its good for India to create drones but I think we will not be able to use them in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Because I think never take an open war with an uneducated enemy or country. The biggest loss is ours. So the so called future weapon can cause a lot of problem for. But on the other if India is selected as NATO country then there is a good chance to use drones. S Gopal I am not an expert but ordinary citizen. Correct me if I am wrong.

  5. On reading this article, two things straight come to my head are India will be able to manufacture different types of UAVs successfully under a JV / independently to deploy them in military and civil activities. Further, India can generate good export business in this segment in due course of time. Second is that we really need to upgrade our defence capabilities very efficiently and effectively to remain relevant in the fast changing global space.

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