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Friday, June 2, 2023

UAVs: Revolutionizing South Asia in the modern age

Ahyousha Khan, a research associate at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad, discusses the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a tool of modern age warfare and its implications in South Asia. She further explains the current trends of drone systems and how they are used to defeat enemies in conflicts.

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The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aircraft​s​​ or drones in wars and conflicts have added new dynamics to warfare. These systems gain notoriety after their massive use by Obama Administration during War on Terror. Due to their Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR), striking, and loitering capabilities these systems became an attractive commodity for militaries all over the world. Rather than totally changing the face of the warfare, this system added ​a new dynamic to the warfare where now ​the life of the soldier is protected; correct intelligence can be collected and surveillance of the adversary became possible during peace and wartime situations​​.

Thus, situational awareness of the employer of the drone technology increases significantly without jeopardizing or sacrificing a single soldier. Today, the utilization of drone technology is being used by not only states but non-state actors because of the element of​ the low cost of these systems. It is not that all of these systems are low in cost, it is just they can be made and accessed in their basic form without requiring huge amounts. But these systems are definitely low in cost in comparison to fighter jets, as a huge amount is spent on them and then training of pilots to use these fighter planes.

Read more: Pakistan Turkey to jointly produce miltary drones

According to estimates, drones just cost 3% of what a fighter jet would cost, and also the strikes carried out by the drones have limited blast zones than a strike carried through fighter jets. Therefore, according to ​the Center for the Study of Drone’s report on the Drone Database, today 95 countries in the world have active drone inventories, where these states are operating more than 171 types of UAVs, which means that this number of utilization of drones has increased by 58%. It is estimated that the drone market will increase from $ 5.6 billion to $ 14 billion annually during this decade.

UAV’s as a tool of modern age warfare

Today the types and varieties of drones range from regular highly sophisticated drone systems to kamikaze-style drones, which are not only utilized by states but also non-state actors. Other than the use of drones by the US, the utilization of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict displayed that how vital a role drone system can play. Military strategists all around the world agree that the utilization of drones by Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict against Armenian forces has opened a new chapter in modern warfare and declared this the “second drone age”.

In the case of South Asia, introduction and familiarization with drone technology happened as a consequence of US drone strikes, which gained a lot of negativity for strikes as well because of the violation of air-space, sovereignty, and civilian deaths. But in recent years, for South Asia and specifically Pakistan-India, drone technology is gaining momentum in national security. Both countries are working to acquire or build these systems and have tried to use these systems (quad-copters) along the border.

From the year 2020 till the month of June, Pakistan’s army shot down the 8th Indian spy drone. These actions from the Indian side were violations of established airspace SoPs between both countries. It reflects that the opposite side is ready to utilize ​​a certain degree of drone technology along the LOC and take​ a​ certain degree of risk. Does this mean that both countries could use bigger or more sophisticated drone technology against each other? In terms of capabilities, both India and Pakistan have sophisticated drone technology.

Read more: Drone uproar in India: A ploy to coerce the IAF?

In the case of Pakistan, it first acknowledged that it possesses drone technology in 2015 by declaring its indigenously developed Burraq UAV, which is also equipped with laser guider air to ground missile. Other than that, Pakistan also has indigenously developed GIDS Shahpar, which is​ a medium altitude and medium endurance, Falco is another drone which is being operated by Pakistan’s Air force and this list also includes ScanEagle, Uqab, Wing Loong 1, and Luna.

Pakistan is also working to develop and acquire Medium Altitude and Long Endurance drones (MALE), recently Pakistan inked a contract with the Turkish Aerospace Industry to produce TAI’s MALE combat drone. Other than these developments, Pakistan also received 4 Cai Hong MALE drones from China.

India stepping up its modern warfare game

In South Asia, India is also developing and procuring many sophisticated UAVs as well as anti-drone systems. Recently, India is in process of purchasing 30 MQ-9B predator drones from the US. India also inducted 2 Sea Guardian drones from the US, and India is also in process of acquiring a Heron ​​surveillance UAV from Israel. Other than these future procurements, India’s current drone inventory comprises UAVs built by Israel, which are Spylite, Harop, Searcher Mk1, Searcher Mk2, and Heron 1.

As far as indigenous development of drones is concerned, India’s DRDO is developing Rustom-2 ISR drones. Indian policy circles are also interested in the pursuit of smaller armed drones operating as aswarm, which will be low in cost and can overwhelm the adversary.

Though Pakistan has ingeniously developed more drones than India and is effectively utilizing them, India has started working in anti-drones technology. Recently at the start of this year, India used combat-armed drone swarms​​ comprised of 74 kamikaze swarm drones, which autonomously identified its target and attacked it.

India also announced that its​ BSF (border security force) has ​an ​anti-drone system capable of identifying and targeting ​a ​single or more than one drone within 10 seconds from a distance. In anti-drone systems, India is also working on electronic jamming systems to track and neutralize the drone systems of ​​adversaries.

Read more: India tests longer-range drones, to supply Covid-19 vaccines

Will India and Pakistan use this technology against each other?

These developments reflect that both countries are working towards modernizing their drone fleets. To answer the question that whether both will be able to use these sophisticated systems against each other, other than mentioning the technological prowess of both countries, it is also important to note the doctrinal and policy intents of both countries. In recent years, India has continuously exhibited the tendencies to exploit the levels below the nuclear threshold in form of its so-called doctrine of “surgical strike”.

But, in all these attempts, India was not able to attain any success and in its most recent event has to bear​ the loss of fighter air crafts, helicopters​, and one of the pilots was captured by Pakistan. So, in this backdrop, drones provide a lucrative opportunity for India to use a drone. But, if India is to use the drone against Pakistan, it might use the small low​-cost armed drone, which will definitely raise the risk of war between both states as it will be a violation of Pakistan’s air space.

As drones blur the lines between peace and war, high risk or low risk and political or ethical, India might consider using these smaller UAV systems because of its warmongering policy doctrines and RSS​-driven leadership but the consequences will not be simpler and it will have​ serious​ consequence along the LOC. Moreover, before the ceasefire on LOC Pakistan was continuously shooting down the Indian quad-copters. It is time that Pakistan also develop​s​anti-drone systems and deploy them ​along the LOC.

Read more: How to hide from drones in the age of rampant surveillance

The author is a Research Associate at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. She can be reached at ahyoushakhan@gmail.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.