The recent drone attack on the Indian Air Force base while not devastating was a warning that confirms what I have been writing in the columns of Geopolitics for the last five years: India need drones, in a hurry. Drones, or if one uses their sexier name, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are relatively cheap, difficult to counter, and can be used for a range of missions. Most importantly, if a drone is shot down, unlike the pilot of a manned aircraft, no one cares. If, in 2019, the Pakistanis had shot down a UAV, instead of a MiG-21 and not captured Wing Commander Abhinandan, the Indian public would not have batted an eyelid. Instead, there was an outpouring of rage over the capture of an Indian pilot, and for a while, it seemed that the two countries were headed towards a more serious clash. So, what is the best way to build up a UAV force, and in what security situations can they be used?
Drones: The origins
Experiments with Drones began in the 1930s when both the US Navy and the British military began to conduct experiments with unmanned systems. This continued into the Vietnam war where drones were used for surveillance by the United States. The Israelis successfully used drones in various conflicts in the 1980s but it was in the 1990s, however, that drones were introduced into modern-day conflict. In 1993, the newly appointed Central Intelligence Agency Director, James Woolsey, sought a surveillance craft that could loiter for hours over the rough terrain of Bosnia. By then the civil war in Bosnia was in its first year and it became clear that satellite surveillance could only give a few minutes of coverage every day over the terrain. Yet, US intelligence needed an aircraft that could fly for long hours over a battlefield that was complicated by the fact that the combatants were mostly not in uniforms.
Woolsey started a programme in the CIA to develop UAVs and an Israeli- American UAV designer, Abraham Karem, who had owned a drone company that went bankrupt, was asked to improve his Amber series of drones to make them quieter and stealthier. The project moved at high speed and within roughly six months the improved version of the Amber, now dubbed Predator, was flying over Bosnia and giving real-time surveillance coverage of a difficult battlefield terrain. The fact that the programme was brought to fruition so quickly was a testament to American innovation and the ability of the CIA to bypass the acquisition bureaucracies of the Pentagon to rapidly develop and deploy the aircraft.
Air Forces have had an institutional resistance to UAVs since they are slow, easy to shoot down over a contested air space, and worse, they take the fighter pilot out of the cockpit. Yet UAVs have begun to make their mark in the modern-day battlefield. In the case of the Azerbaijan- Armenia conflict, the Azerbaijani military was able to successfully use Turkish drones, which were constructed using off-the-shelf technologies, to inflict heavy damage on Armenian artillery and sway the tide of war in the favor of Azerbaijan.
Similarly, in the war between the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi military, the Houthis have been outgunned by the Saudis who were able to use their advantage in air power to destroy the air fleet of the erstwhile Yemeni Air Force that had been captured by the Houthis. In response, the Houthis have innovated and used Iranian drones to attack Saudi oil facilities and even managed to damage them. Since then, the Houthis have used drones to attack both oil facilities and military targets and, on occasion, have been successful in their strikes. Admittedly, most of the drones are being shot down by the Saudi forces but the cost of air defence against drones is far more exorbitant than launching low-technology and low-cost UAVs.
In the modern-day battlefield, UAVs are important tools to wage war against an opponent since they offer mobility over rugged terrain, long-endurance surveillance capabilities, and the capability to carry out tactical strikes. Moreover, there are a variety of naval and land-based drones emerging that could be used to carry out asymmetric warfare against the enemy. Which then raises the question, how does India go about raising a capable force of aerial, land-based, and naval drones?
An Indian drone acquisition policy
The French leader Georges Clemenceau once said that “war is too serious a matter to leave to military men.” The same goes for weapons acquisitions and the development of military doctrine because, in the event of a military disaster, the blame is laid at the doorstep of politicians. The loss in the 1962 war with China is not blamed on the Indian military and, instead, is firmly centered around Nehru and his Defence Minister, V K Krishna Menon—even though a very convincing case could be made about the ineptness of the Indian military in that conflict. Today, the country’s strategic thinkers keep thinking of mimicking the great powers and buying expensive weapon systems which they cannot get in sufficient numbers to impose their military will on the battlefield. Thus, despite all the hype in India, 36 Rafales do not change the air balance between India and China.
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