DRONE TECH: INDIA'S JOHNNY COME-LATELY MOMENT
Geopolitics|August 2021
Instead of ruing the missed opportunities of the past, India should instead, take advantage of a late start and focus on critically needed anti-drone technologies using collaboration, besides an innovative model of public-private partnership including encouraging entrepreneurship development in this sphere. We should start now, asserts MAJ GEN RS MEHTA
MAJ GEN RS MEHTA

Recent Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drone developments have taken the military world by storm. The respected London-based Economist has cited Azerbaijan's highly effective use of drones in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Turkey's use of drones in the Syrian Civil War as indicating the future of warfare. It noted Azerbaijani tactics and Turkey's use of drones as indicating a new, more affordable type of airpower. It also noted that the ability of drones to record their kills enabled an effective propaganda campaign.

The multiple swarm attacks on the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Syria throughout January-November 2018 were significantly being termed as the world’s “first” (more later) drone attack. The 2019 Abqaiq-Khurais and 2020 Baghdad International Airport attack all justify the assessment by the Economist that a major Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has occurred which cannot be set aside without severe degradation of a country’s military capability and ability to the conduct of its warfighting.

Author Stefan Borg in a recent article writes that for their advocates, the relatively cheaper UAVs promise precision in targeting, thus allowing wars to be waged with virtually no risks to the lives of one’s own forces and with far fewer civilian casualties than hitherto. To their critics, UAVs dissolve the Clausewitzian understanding of war as a struggle between wills into pure killing. While the use of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) - also called armed UAVs- dates back to the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, unarmed UAVs have been in use for military purposes since the 1930s. Today, 90 countries use UAVs; up from 17 countries in 2000. In time to come, all countries will possess UAVs in various configurations.

Israel is the first and, arguably, along with the US, the most tactically advanced user of military UAVs. The broader importance of the UAV, the Israeli experience shows, is not its use as an armed platform but rather as a provider of Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR), to assist the targeting process. While this assessment is irrefutable, there is a need to also urgently develop anti-drone systems using the ISTAR process as an entry requirement for competence in anti-drone operations. One must note with some irony that as of date, India is using military drones from both the USA and Israel and has made a huge monetary investments in future cutting edge drone purchases even as its DRDO has nurtured nascent development of drone technology for long years without making much headway.

Johnny-Come-Lately

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the phrase “Johnny-come-lately” as “a person (or entity) who starts a job or activity later than other people and sometimes uses the experience and knowledge of these people to obtain an advantage over them”. Think of the twin-drone attack on Jammu airfield facilities on June 27, 2021, and India’s frantic efforts to come onboard the drone superfast make the Johnny-come-lately cliche fit uncomfortably on India’s drone status as a country that started experimenting with drones 20 years back but did not understand either its potential as a sunrise industry or its huge value as a battlefield development.

Had we started then and followed the success of Israel and the USA in operationalising drones in their many avatars- armed, unarmed; surveillance; reconnaissance; for Battlefield Damage Assessment (BDA); as decoys; EW facilitators; for overwatch for a number of reasons/activities; as anti-aircraft/ missile targets and in varied civil applications we could have become a world drone hub. We could have done this with or without collaboration and empowered our forces besides bringing in a flood of well-paying jobs in manufacturing, ancillary industries, and emerging online occupations that needed commercial point delivery such as medicine, food, transporting lifestyle goods, and so on. Instead, we chose to dither along; aware yet satisfied to be passive watchers as the emerging Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) unfolded; with little indigenous cutting-edge military drone deployment or commercial applications to show. A quick review is needed to establish how much behind the curve we are as of date.

Unarmed Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drones.

Drones go back to the 19th century and were first used in Italy as unmanned, armed, helium-filled military balloons. On August 22, 1849, the Austrians for the first time attacked their enemy, the independence-seeking Venetians with these explosive-filled balloons. The first pilotless radio-controlled aircraft was developed in 1918 during World War 1 by the USA as an unmanned flying bomb aircraft but not blooded in combat. The Germans developed the “Fritz X”, a remotely controlled bomb with four small wings which was put into operational use; a breakthrough in guided aerial weapons. French designer Étienne Edmond Œhmichen created the world’s quadcopter in 1921, using four rotors and eight propellers. George de Bothezat and Ivan Jerome also developed this concept leading to the fielding of the helicopter with much later drone applications.

Why “drone”?

The first generally used drone however appeared in 1935 as a full-size UK de Havilland DH82B Queen Bee biplane, which was fitted with a radio and servo-operated controls in the back seat. The first-ever returnable and reusable drones, the biplanes could be conventionally piloted from the front seat, but more generally flown unmanned for improving shooting skills in Artillery gunners. The term drone dates back to this initial use; a wordplay on the Queen Bee nomenclature.

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