India sets sights on killer drones
By Siddharth Srivastava
NEW DELHI - Aside from the much discussed acquisition of big conventional
weapons by India, a silent accretion has been the fleet of reconnaissance and
"killer" unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), specifically aimed at neutralizing
threats from Pakistan, and possibly China in future.
Official sources have told Asia Times Online that if everything goes as
planned, within the next two years India should possess a fleet of at least
25-30 attack UAVs compared to fewer than five now with such capabilities. Until
now, India has never admitted to using the destroyer UAVs.
Latest reports suggest that some surveillance UAVs may be
deployed in Maoist-infested areas, following the deadly attack on Tuesday on
paramilitary forces in Chhattisgarh that killed 75 security personnel.
The sources say that the moves to acquire attack UAVs gained momentum after the
Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, with Indian defense commanders pressing
for their procurement as they have been used by American in the Af-Pak region
to very good effect.
It may be recalled that America's "war on terror" in Afghanistan and the
frontier regions of Pakistan have involved remote-controlled attacks via
satellite. Predators and Reaper UAVs equipped with Hellfire missiles have
caused much damage and been used to assassinate known Taliban extremists.
India has been procuring unmanned drones since the India-Pakistan Kargil
conflict in 1999, having inducted over 100 UAVs in the decade that followed.
But these were mainly used for detecting incoming missile attacks or border
The ongoing contracts for the army, navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF)
comprise mainly Israeli "defensive eye in the sky drones" for spying on the
enemy. These have mainly included the unarmed Heron and a few Harpy killer
drones that function like cruise missiles.
However, this is set to change.
Sources tell Asia Times Online that Israeli arms suppliers have been briefed by
New Delhi that future UAV fleets to India should comprise a "bigger dose" of
And, in keeping with new threat dimensions, the IAF is looking to induct the
Israeli Harop killer UAVs from 2011 onwards that resemble the Harpy attack
drones. Other parts of the armed forces are likely to follow.
Integration issues are not expected to be severe as the UAV technology is
considered relatively simple and does not require complementary hardware
The Indian defense forces already have dedicated satellite links and channels
that can be used by the attack UAVs.
There is a possibility that India may pitch for American UAV versions given the
deepening defense relations between the two countries, though Washington's
decision will certainly be weighed by Pakistani reactions, which will not be
positive. Israel poses no such strategic and geopolitical issues for India.
India's new UAV procurement sets follow considerable talk at the highest
political and military levels of targeted assaults and "hot pursuit'' by Indian
forces in known terror zones in Pakistan - and now possibly Afghanistan.
Military officials have been impressing upon the political leadership in New
Delhi that an inadequate and obsolete arsenal is at their disposal, especially
in the context of latest arms supplied to Pakistan by America and China.
Officials say that over the longer term, India will look to procure or develop
the next generation UCAVs (combat UAVs) that will substitute missile-fitted
fighter jets for conventional attack missions.
Harpy and Harop versions destruct at the target, while American Predator and
Reaper drones resemble fighter-jets in that they can return to base to
replenish arms for fresh missions.
Spy drones are among a clutch of "intelligent arms'' being procured by India
The IAF is inducting three Israeli "Phalcon" airborne warning and control
systems, at a cost of over US$1 billion. These are capable of tracking missiles
attacks and can keep an eye on neighboring nations without infringing airspace.
Another system procured from Israel last year for US$600 million was aerostat
radars, which can spot guerilla attacks such the Mumbai assault, where the
attackers used small dinghy boats to infiltrate the city.
Pakistan has been pushing for multi-utility drones, apart from big armaments
such as F-16 fighter jets, from America as part of its military aid package in
exchange of taking on al-Qaeda and now the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Following recent talks, the US is poised to supply state-of-the art arms,
including laser-guided bomb kits, helicopter gun ships, surveillance drones and
the latest version of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan.
However, so far, Washington has apparently limited the supply of tactical
unarmed Shadow UAVs for intelligence-gathering purposes to its ally, while also
withholding killer Predator drones.
Pakistani officials have been quoted as saying they are hopeful of procuring
the destroyer drones in the near future. Some reports also suggest the
possibility of a Predator equivalent being jointly produced by China and
India has held for long that American weapons provided to Pakistan can only be
used against India and are ineffective against guerilla tactics adopted by
militants holed in various remote regions.
The simmering conflict between India and Pakistan in South Asia and the push
for strategic space between India and China in the Asian region has fueled the
India's arms acquisitions in the five years from 2004-2009 were US$35 billion,
more than double the US$15.5 billion spending from 1999 to 2004, as defense
plans after the Kargil conflict were followed to fruition. In the decade after
Kargil the value of India's total arms purchases - from domestic state-owned
weapons companies and abroad - has exceeded US$50 billion, with every sign the
momentum will be maintained over the next decade.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), a reputed arms
trade monitor, said in its report for 2009 that India is the world's
second-largest arms buyer from 2005 to the end of 2009, importing 7% of the
world's arms exports. The top spot went to China, though as India's
procurements continue to rise and China turns self-sufficient for arms, India
could well become the biggest buyer of arms over the next five years.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached