Drones are on the rise in the Indian armed forces. Identified as an essential tool for modernization, in recent years UAVs have become a staple of Indian border surveillance. Constrained for a long time by the limits of defense industry expertise and by chronic delays of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) projects, India was initially forced to import off-the-shelf models.
In 1996, New Delhi began operating Searcher and MALE UAVs bought through Israel Aeronautics Industries (IAI), as well as Searcher II since 2000, and Heron since 2001, also designed by IAI. The armed forces now have around a hundred Searcher II and sixty Heron. However, recognizing the limitations of the off-the-shelf purchases, and concerned about developments in China and Pakistan, the Ministry of Defence launched an offensive strategy to develop an indigenous industry by establishing institutions dedicated to UAV technology, under the guidance of DRDO. But these projects, guided by the sacrosanct principle of self-sufficiency (self-reliance), have still to attract more than a weak private sector participation.
A specific “drones” unit will soon be established in the Indian Air Force (IAF), at the request of Indian CEMAA. There will be a limited number of future UAV squadrons, so that the IAF can allocate a sufficient number of trained personnel to each.
The Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of DRDO has developed a broad spectrum of knowledge on UAV subsystems technologies, including aerodynamic design, composite materials, telemetry, propulsion (jet engine design PTAE7), flight control software, actuators and sensors. On these programs, ADE has several partners including the giant Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) groups Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bharat Electronics Limited and Bharat Dynamics Limited.
The creation of a “drones” unit
A specific “drones” unit will soon be established in the Indian Air Force (IAF), at the request of Indian CEMAA. There will be a limited number of future UAV squadrons, so that the IAF can allocate a sufficient number of trained personnel to each. Drone operators were previously airmen who had been excluded from the pilot training for medical reasons. Their numbers have been declining steadily, mainly because of advances in medical care. Therefore, it was necessary to review the entire recruitment process and create a real drones unit in the heart of the IAF. The question is whether the Ministry of Defence will agree to fund the additional staff, or if the IAF will have to dip into its ranks at the expense of other units.
In addition, the DRDO plans to set up a testing center dedicated to UAVs in Chitradurga, near Bangalore in Karnataka.
From surveillance to counter-insurgency
In operational terms, the priority in terms of UAV requirements is border surveillance missions, and most units in operation are assigned to these missions. Heron and Searcher II are deployed along national borders, particularly those shared with China and Pakistan. Around ten Heron drones are currently deployed in northern Kashmir where they constantly monitor the Line of Control (LoC) separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. It is worth noting that the Searcher II and Heron, both of which have relatively high light ceilings (18,500 and 30,000 feet respectively), are particularly suitable for operations in the mountainous regions of the Himalayas. It is this quality that made the difference with competing drones in tests performed at altitude.
During a recent operation conducted by the security forces, images taken by the Israeli drone on what was supposed to be a Maoist training camp ultimately proved misleading, as it was in reality only a village.
In 2010, several violations of Indian airspace were reported in the Himalayas, notably in Kashmir, by Chinese and Pakistani drones. One hundred Israeli Searcher II UAVs are now operating along the east, west and north borders. In addition, several drones are being deployed in the particularly sensitive area of Sir Creek marshland separating the Sindh region (Pakistan) and Gujarat (India).
The Indian Navy uses UAVs for maritime surveillance (traffic control, EEZ protection, fight against terrorism and piracy). It has a dozen drones at its disposal, mainly Heron and Searcher II. The first squadron, INAS 343, was established in 2006 in the Kochi (Kerala) naval base. Recently, a second squadron of drones, INAS 343, came into operational service in the Indian Navy. Based at Porbandar (Gujarat), it has two Searcher II and two Heron. A new squadron will shortly be established in Tamil Nadu. India has developed a unique competency operating UAVs in the tropics where there is a lot of rainfall. The navy’s Searcher II and Heron UAVs played an important role in the rescue operations for the 2008 tsunami. They allowed for the detection of survivors and bodies off the coast of the Andaman and Nicobar islands (Bay of Bengal), better guiding the SAR helicopters. The DRDO is developing with the Israeli IAI a naval drone with a rotary wing (NRUAV), for a budget of 1163 crores. It will be dedicated to SRI operations from the IN warships.