Exclusive: How the air force killed drone wars in Chhattisgarh

India’s super-secret drone war over the Maoist corridor is stalling because air force pilots have shot down plans to be relocated in the region citing lifestyle concerns, intelligence sources have told Firstpost. Twelve Israeli-made Searcher tactical drones committed to intelligence gathering over the violence-torn Chhattisgarh-Orissa border — part of an $220 million fleet — have been operating at the extremities of their range from a base near Hyderabad, leaving them little time to hover over their targets.

Last year, the sources said, the air force rejected calls for the fleet to be relocated at Jagdalpur — not far from the site of Saturday’s murderous Maoist ambush, which killed at least 27, including top Congress leader Mahendra Karma. The Air Force, sources said, argued that living facilities at the Defence Research and Development Organisation-run airstrip in Jagdalpur did not meet the standards its pilots expected.

Instead, the air force said it would relocate the drones to an airstrip operated by the Steel Authority of India in Bhilai — some 250 kilometres from Jagdalpur, somewhat less than half distance from Hyderabad. The best part of a year on, the move is yet to be made.


An Israel Aero Space Industries (IAI) Heron 1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the airbase in the central Swiss town of Emmen. These are the drones that were bought by the Indian govt with much fanfare.  Reuters

“My men are dying of malaria”, a police officer claimed, “but these air force guys can’t bring themselves to live a few hours a day without airconditioning”.

Police sources say the drones hadn’t been flying over the Dabra plateau, where Maoists had massed in preparation for Saturday’s attack, because of range constraints. For the most part, the drones have returned after touching Sukma’s periphery. “In a typical mission”, a source familiar with the programme told Firstpost, “the drones spend about three hours getting over their target and another three getting back. Then, they need fuel reserves to ensure a safe return. Frankly, there’s no point to having these drones unless they’re closer to the region”.

Launched with great fanfare in 2009, the drone programme has generated persistent controversy. The programme’s critics say it generates little intelligence, since the electro-optical, thermal and radar sensors on the drones cannot penetrate foliage. According to this article they can only penetrate 2-3 inches of foliage. Large swathes of the Chhattisgarh-Orissa border consist of forest. Even outside of forested areas, drone sensors can’t tell the difference between Maoists out of uniform and ordinary villagers. Andhra Pradesh’s crack Greyhounds counter-Maoist special forces had declined to purchase drones in 2006, for just this reason.

Now, the DRDO is working on improving CARABAS—a sensor system made by Swedish firm SAAB, to track military movements in jungles. CARABAS, however, is said by SAAB to "sense any concealed ordnance–trucks, tanks and artillery–with dimensions of more than one meter." There’s no tanks or artillery in the Maoists' hands— and none of them are over one meter wide.

Police officials deployed on counter-insurgency duties in the region also say information comes in so late its often useless. The Indian Air Force passes on the data harvested by its drones to the National Technical Research Organisation for analysis. The NTRO, however, doesn’t have real-time access to the ground intelligence being generated by the police and Intelligence Bureau.

For now, it seems a classic case of how despite having hardware, the coordination and sharing of intelligence data remains a deeply problematic issue for the Indian forces.

Published Date: May 26, 2013 11:30 AM | Updated Date: May 27, 2013 11:35 AM

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