The Burning Issue: D for Drone

D For Drone, testCrackerPresident Obama has recently spoken about the damage done by the Drone attacks carried out by the United States on Pakistan and Afghanistansetting out more clearly than ever before the legal justifications for targeted killing. He also mentioned that four US citizens killed in strikes since 2009. The United Nations has praised this “significant step towards increased transparency”. There is a UN inquiry currently examining 25 attacks, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and Somalia.Pakistan, the main focus of the strikes, has reiterated its view that drones are “counter-productive”.And Obama has pledged to continue strikes, but with tighter oversight of the programme and stricter targeting rules. Today we examine the dangerous drones.

The Burning Issue by:

What is a drone?

To the US military, they are UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). However, they are more commonly known as drones. They are used in situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. They provide troops with a 24×7 “eye in the sky”. Each aircraft can stay aloft for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground.Their sizes range from small intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft, some light enough to be launched by hand, to medium-sized armed drones to large spy planes.

Drones are seen by many in the military as delivering precision strikes without the need for more intrusive military action.The use of such unmanned aircraft in the area began under President George W Bush, but their use has more than doubled under the Obama administration.Hundreds of people have been killed by the strikes in Pakistan – civilians as well as militants, causing outrage. One of the deadliest attacks was in March 2011 when 40 were killed, many believed to be civilians at a tribal meeting.

Key uses of drones

They are not just used for killing the terrorists – in fact killer drones are rare! Their uses include

  • Intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance
  • Checking for roadside bombs or devices on landing areas
  • Listening to mobile phone conversations
  • Helping understand daily routine of locals to see what is normal behaviour
  • Close Air Support
  • Following or attacking suspected insurgents (without needing a passport to enter alien territory!)

Key drone types

The classifications of UAVs are fairly fluid, and can be classified on basis of performance aspects or on the basis of missions. The one classification that is widely used is done by the US military, which profiles UAVs into tiers based on altitude; but other factors include endurance, speed, range and size.

Two of the medium-sized drones currently in use in Afghanistan and Pakistan are the MQ-1BPredator and the MQ-9 Reaper.Each multi-million dollar Predator or Reaper system comprises four aircraft, a ground control station and a satellite link.

These strange-looking planes carry a wealth of sensors in their bulbous noses: colour and black-and-white TV cameras, image intensifiers, radar, infra-red imaging for low-light conditions and lasers for targeting. They can also be armed with laser-guided missiles.

The depiction below illustrates how these drones are controlled and made to work (Image courtesy BBC)

The Indian drones

Having understood the value of the UAVs on hand, the thrust is now to move towards the use of drones as weapons delivery vehicles. India has declared intentions for mass acquisition of what are known as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), to strengthen the armed forces in conventional wars; with a part of the military establishment (particularly the defence hawks) keen to gain UCAVs to make precision strikes on extremist training camps across the border. At present, India has less than tenHarpy killer drones from Israel Aerospace Industry, but many more are needed. These also include the advanced version of Harpy, named the Harop, which includes electro-optical sensors that enable them to hit even close radars that do not emit signals. Both Harpy and Harop are primarily focused suppressing enemy air defences. But Harpy and Harop drones destroy themselves along with the target, which is why they are called ‘kamikaze’, making them a costly investment. What India wants is reusable UCAVs that can replace manned fighter jets for dangerous medium and long-range bombing missions.

The DRDO, under India’s Ministry of Defence, has already developed two UAVs, known as Lakshya and Nishant, and is now working on an indigenous MALE (medium-altitude, long-endurance) drone Rustom.

  • Built to the Indian Army’s specifications, the Nishant has completed both the development phase and a trials period successfully.This ‘multi-mission’ UAV is unique in that it has no wheels, and is designed in such a way as to eliminate the need for a runway – its launcher system can simply be mounted on a truck, and can be launched at intervals of less than half an hour.The Nishant can remain in the air for four and a half hours (the US drones can be in flight for 17 hours), flying at a maximum speed of 185 km/hr. A limited series of 12 Nishant UAVs is said to be planned for induction into the army soon.
  • The Lakshya, on the other hand, is a pilotless target aircraft to tow flying targets, providing aerial target tracking and live-fire combat training.Lakshya is an Indian remotely piloted high speed target drone system developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of DRDO. A variant Lakshya-1 is used to perform discreet aerial reconnaissance of battlefield and target acquisition.The drone remotely piloted by a ground control station provides realistic towed aerial sub-targets for live fire training. The drone is ground or ship launched from a zero length launcher and recovery is by a two stage parachute system developed by ADE (DRDO), for land or sea based recovery. The drone has a crushable nose cone, which absorbs the impact of landing, minimizing damage. The flight path may be controlled or pre-programmed, based upon the type of mission.
  • Indian developers have been working with Israel Aerospace Industries to develop three UAVs, the Rustom MALE and the short-range Pawan and Gagan.
    • The Rustom can fly at an altitude of 9000 metres or more for up to 24 hours. Its natural surveillance range of 250 km is extendable beyond 1000 km, given that it is capable of using satellite links to transmit data. Though not positioned as such, the Rustom can also function as a killer drone – that is, it can engage and destroy the target after surveillance.
    • The Pawan is a short-range UAV meant to equip Indian Army divisions, the craft will have the capability to engage in surveillance during the day and night, flying for around five hours with a range of 150 km.
    • The Gaganis an advanced version of the Nishant, with a range of 250 km and an altitude capability of 6000 m.
    • India’s Hindustan Aeronautics has also entered into joint development programmes with Israeli Aerospace Industries to develop Chetak helicopters into ship-borne UAVs, and the Indian Navy has placed an order for eight such machines. However, the programme is plagued by the lack of a correct landing and take-off system for moving platforms such as the decks of warships.

The development of Indian drones highlights the importance of defence collaboration with Israel, without whose help, it would have been difficult to achieve such good and quick results!

Watch the first test flight of RUSTOM (in 2010) below – and don’t forget, no one is flying it from inside – it is being flown from a remote location! This is indeed an achievement for India – to have its hands on the latest technology in warfare.

Quick Questions

Q.Does China have its own drone?

A.Reports suggest that China is now ready to test its first jet-powered Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UACV) – theLijian(“Sharp Sword”)

Q.Does Pakistan have a drone?

A.Pakistan always sees drones in its skies – but they are not made in Pakistan (or imported from China!) – they are the US drones aiming at Pakistani targets JThat the US constantly violates Pakistani airspace to hunt and kill Taliban is a source of serious confrontation between the two countries. But it is only understandable for the US to not take permission from the country which gave refuge to its most wanted terrorist – Osama bin Laden – for years!


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