Aero-India: UAVs as force multipliers on future battlefields

Bengaluru will host Aero-India 2015, the 10th Edition of the popular air show, from today (Wednesday) till February 22. 

Though not as glamorous as fighter aircraft, one of the key technologies that will be displayed, flown and discussed, will be that of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

These small aircraft, popularly known as drones, have been used very effectively during the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Army chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag said during a recent interview, “UAVs will play a vital role in future battles and there is a requirement to enhance the Indian Army holdings.”

Of the four 'pathfinder' projects that were shortlisted for joint development and co-production during the recent US President Barack Obama-Prime Minister Narendra Modi summit, one was the next generation Raven mini UAV for battlefield surveillance. 

The current Raven UAV is hand-launched and has a range of 10 km. India already has the indigenously designed and manufactured Nishant and the Israeli Heron and Searcher I & II UAVs in service with the armed forces.

The UAVs are low-cost, low-risk, high-payoff, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA) systems that help acquire invaluable real-time intelligence.  UAVs can be deployed quickly to cover vast areas and, hence, enhance responsiveness. 

The employment of UAVs improves situational awareness, helps increase the operational tempo and reduces the sensor-to-shooter time lag. When employed in conjunction with other sensors, UAVs assist in confirming or negating the efficacy of information gathered and, thus, qualitatively improve the intelligence available to commanders.

While UAVs have several disadvantages such as vulnerability to enemy fire and interception and limitations of communications, they can be employed flexibly and provide unique capabilities to the armed forces. A large number of the reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition  (RSTA) requirements that can be fulfilled by UAVs are common to the three Services, though with minor variations in the methodology of use.

The common requirements of the Services include: strategic surveillance of the nuclear capabilities, movement of nuclear warheads and materials and deployment of nuclear assets of adversaries, particularly during war; detection of missile launches during war; RSTA by way of photo reconnaissance, thermal/ infrared (IR) imaging and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) during peace-time, the deployment and preparatory stages and during war for battles pace transparency; target designation for ground, air and sea launched precision guided munitions (PGMs); suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD); and, post-strike damage assessment.

Communications and electronic warfare-related needs include: signals and electronic intelligence (SIGINT and ELINT); electronic counter measures (ECM) and electronic counter-counter measures (ECCM); information warfare, including psychological and propaganda operations; and, communications relay platform to extend the range of VHF and UHF radio communications. 

Miscellaneous roles include: NBC detection, early warning and monitoring of contamination (nature and level of nuclear radiation, collection of air samples); digital mapping; and, meteorology.

In the air defence environment prevailing in modern wars, the survivability of UAVs is a key requirement. The technologies necessary to enhance survivability include low radar signature, radar warning receivers, chaff dispensers, ECCM suites to ensure that communications with the UAV are not disrupted, low acoustic signature of the engine and, where possible, radar absorbing paints. 

These requirements burden designers with the need to strike a fine balance between the size, shape and weight of the airframe and the payload that can be carried.

Employing UAVs

 It is not enough to merely be able to locate static and moving targets by employing UAVs on long duration missions and generate a vast data bank. As these aircraft provide a real-time capability, the required tri-Service infrastructure must be created to analyse the incoming inputs within minutes, sift ‘actionable’ bits from those that help build a continuous intelligence picture and disseminate the actionable information to users like ground strike fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and artillery regiments.

Another emerging requirement of the Indian armed forces is that of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) to deliver PGMs to destroy selected hard targets that are static as well as mobile. The UCAVs have come of age and have proved their efficacy in the recent wars fought in Afghanistan and West Asia. 

The weaponry that UCAVs carry and the on-board sensor suite that is necessary to locate targets and guide PGMs on to them, are extremely sophisticated. It has been reported that the IAF is considering the induction of the Harop UCAV of Israeli origin.

It is a combination of a UAV and a missile and is disposable. Also, the DRDO is developing the AURA (autonomous unmanned research aircraft) UCAV for the IAF. The Ground Control Station (GCS) is the hub of all UAV operations.

It is imperative that the GCS conforms with standards common to all the Services so that inter-operability is ensured. The GCS should also be capable of interfacing seamlessly with the command and control and decision support systems of the Services and sub-systems like the Battlefield Surveillance System (BSS) of the army. 

Service-specific utility and inter-operability through commonality of data standards are no doubt conflicting requirements, but these need to be met if all the surveillance assets are to be optimally utilised.

The roles and missions of UAVs have been expanding in a dynamic manner since their advent in 1982, when the Israeli army first used them for surveillance and as decoys over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Since then, UAVs have been extensively employed for RSTA and are now acknowledged as effective force multipliers. Emerging technologies will further enhance the effectiveness of UAVs.

A very high level of tri-Service networking is required for the optimum exploitation of the capabilities of the UAVs. The next logical step will be to introduce UCAVs into service with the Indian armed forces as a low-cost option for air-to-ground strikes.