India is in advanced negotiations with the US to procure MQ-9B armed drones. It has also leased and used two drones from the US in the Indian Ocean Region. In addition, India is also developing its drones. Drones are a new genre of weapons that are increasingly used for reconnaissance, aerial surveillance, missile defence and also to strike targets. They are increasingly used in conventional warfare and reconnaissance. This is changing the contours of modern warfare where face-to-face combat may become obsolete. Indian development and acquisition of armed drones, once deployed against China and Pakistan would present several security challenges. It is, thus, important to examine what military drones India is pursuing and what security implications it has for the region.
What are Drones?
Many weapon systems bring evolutionary changes to the nature of warfare. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are weapons that are changing the face of war in the 21st century. They have been mostly used for reconnaissance, aerial surveillance, missile defence and hitting targets. They come in many shapes and sizes and vary in degree of sophistication. There are three basic types – strategic, operational and tactical. Strategic drones are used for long-range reconnaissance and missions. Examples are the Global Hawk which cruises at 20,000 meters above sea level for up to 40 hours. Operational drones include the Predator and Reaper systems that are capable of flying at an altitude of 7,500 and 15,000 meters respectively and are deployed at the theatre level of combat. Tactical drones are typically low-altitude, short-range aircraft (20 miles or less) like the Dragon Eye system, which can be remotely piloted or pre-programmed to fly autonomously. Drones still have operators, who can be based thousands of km away from the battlefield. In the last decade or so, the role of drones has moved from counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency warfare into full-scale conventional combat. A new era of drone warfare beckons as technology becomes ever more sophisticated and linked to artificial intelligence. Drones may be completely automated in future. In essence, face-to-face combat may become obsolete. Drones have been used in operations and combat in recent years. They are currently being used in the Ukraine crisis by both sides.