Military & Aerospace

UAVs: A Potent Operational Asset
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Issue Vol. 36.1, Jan-Mar 2021 | Date : 31 Mar , 2021

Despite tacit understanding between China and India, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) continue to play a significant role in the face-off between them in Ladakh. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to use drones to drop weapons to operatives in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Two General Atomics Predator drones have been leased by the Indian Navy in November last year, from the United States (US) for extended surveillance in the Indian Ocean Region. Drones have been used aggressively for a few decades now. On September 14, 2019, drones were used to attack the Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The Houthis claimed responsibility and stated they had used ten drones in the attack launched from Yemen. Saudis said that many more drones and cruise missiles were used. The very accurate attack caused large fires at the processing facility. Both facilities had to be shut down for repairs. The US has increased its use of drone strikes as part of the ‘War on Terror’. On January 02, 2020, a US 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. More recently, in November 2020, French used drones to launch missiles to neutralise insurgents in Mali.

 Unmanned aircraft technologies have now matured well beyond just reconnaissance, security and targeting. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are now undertaking all missions including heavy-lift cargo. The World is at a transition. There are some who see the JSF F-35 Lightening II as the last manned fighter/bomber. Solar-powered UAS are already flying. There are dual use (optionally manned) aircraft. The USAF has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely. For long, Russia has been using unmanned MiG-21s as targets. In France, Dassault leads a multi-nation project for delta wing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000. The UK has a Strategic UAS programme ‘Taranis’. UAS such as the Northrop Grumman X-47B are taking off and landing by themselves including on moving aircraft carriers. Autonomous aerial refuelling has been tested. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’ looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-pound class weapons. The new strike bomber in the US is likely to be optionally manned. Uninhabited helicopter convoys will deliver supplies to troops deployed on frontlines. Coordinated UAS swarms have been tested by several countries. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. The USAF’s UAS vision document indicates that, by the year 2047, every mission would be unmanned.

UAS Military Missions and Classification

The UAS could be a fixed-wing aircraft or a rotorcraft. The military missions include ‘Target’ for aerial gunnery, ‘Decoy’ for enemy missiles, reconnaissance, battlefield intelligence gathering, unmanned aerial combat missions, operational logistics and as platforms for defence Research and Development. They are classified based on weight and range of operations. A hand-held UAS has a range of two kilometres; a Close-range UAS has a range of ten kilometres while a Tactical UAS has a range of about 160 km. A Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAS has a range of over 200 km and a High Altitude Long Range (HALE) UAS has unlimited range.

UAS are now mostly being assigned the ‘Dull’, ‘Dirty’ and ‘Dangerous’ missions. ‘Dull’ work could be such as long, somewhat boring reconnaissance missions. ‘Dirty’ implies entering into chemical or nuclear-affected areas with high unsafe radioactivity. ‘Dangerous’ missions involve penetrating contested airspace or opening corridors or short time windows for fighters to surge into or targets requiring long-range precision attack. Drones are being increasingly armed with air-to-surface weapons. UAS are also being used for missions like electronic attack or other non-lethal effects. The UAS swarm could also act as a multi-strike decoy or jam the enemy defences through sheer numbers. UAS will become a must to lead operations into territories with integrated air defences. UAS will continue to act as an eye-in-the-sky and also to mark targets for laser weapons and support to direct fire.

No Endurance Constraints

Unlike as with a human pilot, 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 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 are other potential endurance solutions. RQ-4 Global Hawk, a full-scale operational unmanned system, flew for 33 hours in 2008. In July 2010, the QinetiQ Zephyr Solar Electric flew for 336 hours.

Concept of Autonomous Drones Evolves

The concept of an ‘autonomous drone’ is that it can act based on its 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.

In 1973, Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) built two weaponised aero-model prototypes. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel used unarmed US Ryan Firebee target-drones to spur Egypt into firing its entire arsenal of anti-aircraft missiles. Later, Israel developed the lighter Scout and the Pioneer UAVs and soon became a leading manufacturer of UAVs for real-time surveillance, Electronic Warfare (EW) and decoys. In the 1982 Lebanon war, extensive UAV-based EW resulted in no Israeli pilot being downed. The first ‘UAV war’ was the first Gulf War (May 1991) when at least one UAV was airborne at all times during Operation ‘Desert Storm’. The first human ‘kill’ by an American UAV was on October 7, 2001, in Kandahar.

World Wide Action

UAS are today used by more than 60 countries, with a few of the countries making their own. The US is the leader with nearly 10,000 operational military systems. UAS already outnumber the number of manned aircraft in the US Armed Forces. During theatre-level operations in Afghanistan, UAS flew nearly 200,000 hours a year. The US is also the lead manufacturer of large and combat UAVs with Israel a close second. General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are the world’s leading manufacturers.

The Chendgu plant in China makes the major Chinese UAVs like Wing Loong series and the Guizhou plant manufactures the WZ-2000. IAI’s Harpy, Harop, Searcher and Heron are flying 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. The US manufactures around 50 percent of all military UAS; the leading civil UAS manufacturer is China. As per US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as of November 2020, 1,737,001 drones are registered, of which 506,848 are commercial drones and 1,226,656 are recreational drones. 201,578 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.

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, for example, 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 have 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 a single drone getting through could be potentially lethal. Terrorists and other militants can also operate small, inexpensive drones loaded with weapons. Because of their size, these drones are difficult to see, hard to detect on the radar and difficult to shoot at with conventional weapons, particularly when operating in swarms.

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 in 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 opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea, a spectacular display by a quadcopter drone swarm consisting of 1,218 drones left spectators astounded. Russia has reportedly been working on a concept of drone swarming wherein the Scandinavian countries have seen Russian drones flying in formation over their skies.

Military UAS

Armed UAS or 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, including assassinating high-profile individuals (terrorist leaders). UAS like the RQ-9 Reaper are being used to patrol and secure borders. Payloads like synthetic aperture radar can penetrate clouds, rain or fog by day or night. 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’.

Advances in technology have enabled better capabilities and Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) are being deployed on the battlefield. UAS roles have thus expanded to include strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defence, electronic warfare, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue and combinations of these. The US military operates large numbers of combat UAVs. As a measure of relative cost, the MQ-9 Reaper costs $12 million while an F-35 costs around $95 million. In 2013, the US Navy launched a UAS from a submerged submarine. Since 1997, the US military has used more than 80 F-4 Phantoms converted into UAS as aerial targets for combat training of pilots. In 2013, unmanned F-16s joined as more realistically manoeuverable targets.

UAS Evolving Operational Advantages

UAS have become too attractive and too potent a military asset for any significant power to ignore. The 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 and undertake strike missions while air superiority could be handled by manned fighters. Manned aircraft are certainly better in dynamic environment. US Predators and Reapers were designed for counter-terrorism operations and in war zones in which the enemy lacks sufficient firepower to shoot them down. Full-fledged air-to-air combat capability, increased autonomy and UAS-specific munitions are part of the roadmap. UCAV is now a “first day of the war” force enabler which 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. It operates at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Cost of current manned systems.

The Unconventional UAS Threat

Terrorists, criminals, fanatics and others, find UAVs versatile, stealthy and cheap airborne weapon. 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 weapons. 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 300km is restricted in many countries by the Missile Technology Control Regime. Most countries have clamped down on all illegal UAS. The immediate concern for all is a possible low-level drone attack. Many countries are working on high powered lasers to damage UAS and send them out of control.

Counter Drone Technology

Counters to UAVs (C-UAV) have evolved. Detection requires combination of radar, Radio Frequency (RF), Electro-Optical (EO), Infra-red (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, Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP), camouflage and concealment, water projectors, birds of prey or using another drone for 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). The US is now deploying new radars such as Q-53 system that can detect and identify such small objects and then initiate the kill chain using laser weapons. Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk Works’ engineers are engaged in research to develop and implement the technology that will help 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 them. 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 in this field.

Ethical, Legal Issues and Regulation

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 thousands of miles from the actual action could treat the entire event like a video game. As per existing international law, the drone is in many ways no different from other systems. There is a need to make sure the target is legitimate and it is a proportional strike to the benefit to be gained and there is a need to protect the lives of innocents to the extent possible. In case of autonomous weapons guided by AI could they make decisions on their own that are detrimental to humanity? The technology is here and it is being refined on a day-to-day basis. Most countries including India have put in place regulations for UAS operations. UAS weighing below 250 grams will follow the powered aero-model regulations. Larger-sized UAS 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 route like other aircraft.11

Current Indian UAS Capability

No one shares high-end UAS technologies. The Indian Armed Forces operate nearly 150 Israeli Heron and Searcher II. The Heron can operate up to maximum 52 hours’ duration at up to 35,000 ft. Practical endurance will depend on actual payload. The Searcher is a scaled-up variant of the Scout UAV and 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 sanitise the border and in remote regions of Ladakh helping incursion management.

The Indian Navy is covering part of the coastline and now into the Indian Ocean. The 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 system designed to attack radars 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 the IAF. The IAI Harop (Harpy 2) is also a loitering system which is essentially an anti-radiation drone that can either operate fully autonomously, using its anti-radar homing system or has 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 air show. In February 2019, the IAF decided to add another 54 Harop drones to its earlier fleet of around 110 and has renamed them as P-4. An advanced version is the Heron TP. At the February 2014 Singapore Air Show, IAI unveiled the Super Heron advanced Version with better speed and endurance. Purchase of these variants is under consideration. India is looking at more sophisticated systems such as RQ-4 Global hawks that will help it monitor much larger areas.

Future of Unmanned Systems

Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWs) that can independently search and engage targets based on programmed constraints and descriptions may operate in the air, on land, on water, under water or in space. 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.

The US is developing new undersea drones that can operate in shallow waters where manned submarines cannot. Russians have robots armed with grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs. China too is investing heavily in automated weapons systems and platforms. There are also UAS which operate at hypersonic speeds and sub-orbital altitudes or even faster in low-earth orbit. Newer ones also employ stealth technology. Research is exploring miniature optic-flow sensors, mimicking the compound insect eyes which can transmit data. Next-Generation UAS rotorcraft will have great tactical role including for the Armies and Navies that cannot continue to be dependent on runways. Unmanned surface ship are already on sea trials and will take on roles such as oceanography mine sweeping. The 132-feet unmanned Sea Hunter is designed to missions of up to 10,000 miles on a single tank of fuel. Autonomous ground convoys which are prone to IED attacks make logistics another important area of autonomous systems.

Indigenous UAS and Way Ahead for India

India is conscious of Chinese UCAV designs that are aggressively taking shape. WZ-2000 is a long endurance version Global Hawk-class UAS. Shenyang’s ‘Dark Sword’ is the stealth forward swept wing UCAV of Boeing X-45 class. Developed in Pakistan, ‘Burraq’ (Chinese UCAV design) and ‘Shahpar’ surveillance UAS were inducted late 2013. 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 in due course.

A large number of Indian companies showcased small UAVs at the Def Expo 2020. They have entered joint ventures with foreign companies for technology, but all found difficulty in managing India’s complex bureaucratic red tape and procurement system. In view of small defence expenditures and the persisting duplications of military capacities, mixed manned and unmanned air formations might be 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 such as IAF’s Mehar Baba competition for participants to build a 50-drone swarm. Physically, what counts is the systems inducted in the armed forces. India has to get its act right.

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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

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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