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On November 10, after fighting for more than a month, the small Central Asian Nation of Armenia surrendered to its long time enemy and neighbor, Azerbaijan in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK). This is perhaps only the second example after the Second World War when a country surrendered against its enemy. The war and its aftermath shook the whole region as the Armenian forces were completely routed by their Azerbaijani counterparts.

But how were the Azerbaijanis able to completely annihilate the Armenian forces? This is a question every Armenian is tormented by, for the last confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the former had completely routed the later due to being equipped better. But the scenario has completely changed after two and a half decades. This time the Azerbaijanis along with their conventional weapons used a rather lesser-known weapon in the region, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned fighter drones bought from Turkey and Israel. The use of these unmanned fighting vehicles gave the Armenians a crushing defeat such that it will be not forgotten easily. But this gave the experts a serious issue to consider, how reliable are these future weapons and how exactly they can shape the wars which are to be fought in the future?

Evolution of UAVs

UAVs, in the modern world, can be regarded as a significant step in the future realm of “robotic technology”. The concept of these unmanned aircraft is not a new concept for the world, for the very concept of this can be traced back to 1896, when the first pilotless steam powered aircraft registered a powered flight lasting for over a minute. An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) refers to a power-driven aircraft that is designed to fly without a human operator on board. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), charged with codification and regulation of airways, identifies drones as UAVs.

While the usage of unmanned platforms has always been a preferred choice in fighting wars in all the three mediums- land, water and air, it was however only limited to the domain of aviation because of the available technology. Around a century ago, during the Great War, or World War 1, the Germans became the first people who realized the potential of unmanned platforms, when they used the Curtiss biplanes as the first unmanned aerial vehicle- as Air Torpedoes. Though these were timer operated rather than being controlled by a remote. Post-World War II (WW2), the advancement in the field of unmanned aircrafts albeit at a slow pace, when the armies started using it as practice targets for the air and ground weaponry system.

The 1970s and 80s saw the induction of drones in military but for very limited purposes like for recce purposes or to be used as decoy planes against the enemy. With the advancement in the field of technology and with the coming of sophisticated technology, 1990s can be termed as the real time for the rise of modern-day UAVs. By this time, the new versions of computerized drones armed with advanced weapons and sensors started getting designed to perform all the roles that a manned aircraft can do- in a limited manner though. Around this time, a wide variety of drones started popping up globally in some nations with the basic purpose of surveillance, reconnaissance, and ELINT operations.

Application of UAVs in Future Aerial Warfare

In the history of air forces around the world, UAVs are perhaps the most important invention after jet engines, radars and missiles that could bring a radical change in future aerial warfare scenarios. These are proving as a great substitute to manned aircrafts as they considerably lower the risk of casualties on battleground. Also, since these UAVs can be produced on a large scale at a much cheaper rate than a manned aircraft, they also save the nation’s money to a considerable extent. Apart from doing solo missions, these UAVs will play a crucial role in wars by supplementing manned aircraft missions in many ways, whether by providing them weaponry support or by doing the surveillance of the battleground to give the pilot a better understanding of the situation.

In modern times, air forces around the world have shown a deep interest in the usage of small drones which are evolving into very efficient air launched intelligent weapons system. These small drones when launched from an aerial platform carrying explosives in large numbers can perfectly play the role of Kamikazes in neutralizing potential enemy soft targets (like communication facilities, radars, fuel depots, as well as certain strategic value targets like towers in oil refineries).

With the evolution of intelligent micro-drones in progress, air forces will be able to attack the most vulnerable spots of the enemy with the maximum probability of neutralizing it. It is quite certain that in contested airspaces in the coming times, the tactical deployment of drones will be in mass, where they will saturate the enemy airspace in the beginning of the war, leaving the manned aircraft to finish the job.

It would also be a necessity in the future to use UAVs as decoy aircraft in one’s own airspace against the intruding hostile aircraft to ward-off any threat to one’s own aircraft/drones during hostilities. These drones (or UAVs will give a new meaning to air defense). Apart from small-sized UAVs, we’re also seeing the rapid development of larger combat drones globally, some of which are already inducted by the forces around the world and being used in offensive roles.

These larger drones fitted with considerable advanced avionics are likely to be better armed than manned aircraft in upcoming times. For the Air Forces, these are going to take away a major share of missions from manned aircrafts in the coming times.


It has been more than two decades since the Indian Armed Forces started using the UAVs. The Indian Army was the first armed force to use UAVs, followed by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.

But even after all this while, India’s present holdings of military UAVs are extremely low compared to other equipollent armed forces in the world. There is an urgent need for greater production to meet future battlefield requirements as well as the need to upgrade the existing scientific temperament, funding capacities, research facilities etc… However, not all is lost as in the last decade some new UAV/UCAV programs were launched by the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) like AURA (Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft, it was announced in 2007), Rustom, Netra, Pawan, Ghatak (UCAV), and the first Indian Combat Drone, Rustom-II.

Recently, the Indian Air Force released images of its own swarm drone tests on its official twitter handle, something which was announced by DRDO last year. Amidst the heightened tensions between India and China, the Indian Navy had recently leased a pair of MQ-9B SeaGuradian Drones (which are a part of the American Predator Drones series) to keep a watch over any unwanted Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

All these events indicate that India is on the right track to become a formidable player in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles. However, a few things needs to be kept in mind by the policy makers. First, unlike the countries like the US, China or other western nations, the development of UAVs in India has seen the complete hegemony of the DRDO and other public sector units like Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL). This should be changed and private players who had until recently negligible participation in the program should be involved.

 Second, our technology in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is becoming an important feature for the production of future drones, still lags behind in comparison with the levels achieved by other nations. More investment and efforts are needed to upgrade it.

 Third, the policy makers and strategists should take a look towards the development of indigenous microchips as our armed forces as defence research agencies are still dependent on imports of most of the technology and parts.

The coming decade is going to be an important period in the development of drones, where they are going to play a vital role in both civil and military sectors. As far as the military sector is considered, particularly the Air Force, it is going to be almost impossible to maintain their strength and competence without the induction of drone fleets which will play a decisive role in future battles.

If we see it in the Indian context, then there’s an urgent need to develop and induct these unmanned vehicles as both its hostile neighbors, China and Pakistan are investing heavily in acquiring this capability. China, in particular is fast becoming a leading global arms supplier, particularly the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) creating considerable asymmetry in the region over its drone capability in the coming decade. It is, therefore, a necessity for India to give supreme priority to the developments of military drones, along with a clear path for the acquisition of drone fleets.

2 thoughts on “The Invisible Enemy: Rise of Military UAVs and their future in India

  1. Very insightful column with detailed information about application of UAV in modern warfare..
    Tour de Force.
    Waiting eagerly for next column…

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