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On Modi's US wishlist: Drones for defence, internal security

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs, also known as drones which the United States has used frequently for years in the Af-Pak region) are set to play a more pro-active role in India’s defence and internal security spheres in the near future. UAVs perform a variety of functions ranging from intelligence gathering to strikes on specific targets on the ground.

Defence honchos in New Delhi are working on a long-term plan for greater use of these remotely piloted aircraft without a human aboard in a wide range of military, internal security and civil operations.

Reuters

File photo of a US drone. Reuters

Currently, the Indian armed forces’ holdings of UAVs is quite low – just a few scores. But the Indian government is likely to give a major push to induction of UAVs, indigenously as well as through off-the-shelf purchases from foreign countries.

Within a decade, India’s inventory of UAVs may well cross a thousand at a cost of up to three billion dollars. These UAVs will be of different size, range and parameters catering to varied specific requirements.

In fact, UAVs may well figure in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bilateral visit to the US in September this year. The Obama administration is working on an ambitious plan for co-production and co-development of UAVs, apart from weapon systems like missiles, with India as part of its much talked about Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) with India.

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is leading Pentagon’s DTTI programme, may pay an official visit to India at an early date to talk about many defence-related issues, including the UAVs.

Informatively, on 13 June, 2014 Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Frank Kendall, had told reporters in Washington that the US has a number of “ground breaking” defence technologies, including UAVs, to offer India for co-development and co-production. India has so far been collaborating intensively with Israel for past 15 years on the UAVs and has bought these machines from Israel for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The sense of the Indian strategic establishment is that the UAVs are going to be crucial force multipliers and sentinels on its borders and its 7500-km coastline as well as to perform key role on the internal security front.

India is increasingly using UAVs for surveillance on its borders with Pakistan and China. Since Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, Indian defence forces have been using UAVs for keeping a vigil on its coastline, especially the vessels coming from Karachi.

UAVs’ use in internal security and counter-terrorism operations has also spiked over the years. Indian security forces have been deploying UAVs to keep a tab on terrorists’ activities in the mountainous, inaccessible regions of Jammu and Kashmir as well as in the thickly forested regions of the northeast.

These flying machines have been used to collect intelligence on the activities and movements of the Maoists also in different parts of the country.

Last year, UAVs had kept vigil as the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi had flagged off the Jagganath rath yatra. At the time,  Modi had not even been named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The security agencies resorted to the UAVs to keep a tab on possible suspicious movements given the high threat perception in the case of Modi. Now that Modi has become prime minister it is inevitable that these drones will be used more frequently for guarding him during his travels across the country.

The UAVs can make wise business proposition also. If India perfects the art of building UAVs (the DRDO has already made two types of UAVs, Lakshya and Nishaant) the country can earn precious foreign exchange by exporting these given the fact there are fewer technology export controls with regard to the UAVs.

India also has to catch up with China also which has made rapid strides in developing UAVs for narrowing the air-power disparity with major powers. Last November China made waves by successfully flying for the first time a stealth drone called “Sharp Sword”. China has developed virtually every variety of UAVs currently deployed by the US.

There is an inevitable threat of China exporting its UAVs to Pakistan. This is all the more reason for India to expand its UAV programme in double quick time.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha.