Monday, September 27, 2021

India’s Fluctuating Drone Policy – its impact on optics and manufacturing eco- systems for both military and civil

by Sanat Kaul

The recent Drone attack on 27 June 2021 on the Jammu Air Force base shook the entire strategic community on the issues of unpreparedness against drone attack and the lethality and menace of Drones.

The Drone is a dual technology item. While it is a great new weapon for offensive as has been successfully used by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, while it remains a threat to security, development of indigenous technology remains a priority since its merits are considered important for civil developmental including law and order functions.

The Indian military in its quest for Drones has built up a fleet of imported Drones like Searchers, Heron and Harpoon UAVs. Some indigenously designed mini Drones have been predominantly used by Central Armed Police Forces and a few central and state government. It has been reported that Indian Armed forces plan to procure over 5000 UAVs costing around USD 03 billion over the next 10 years.

According to Bloomberg, India is considering ordering 30 Drones of Predator type from General Atomics of United States. Predator Drones are propeller driven and can be picked up by radars. It has proven its worth in wars as armed Drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia and in areas with little knowledge of Drones. Further, all these countries have had weak anti-Drone capability. However, in an equal combat Predator can be picked up on radars and can be shot down easily or hacked/ jammed. General Atomics of the United States was awarded a contract to build the Predator as early as in1994, and it now has a newer version of it called the Reaper.

Under the current strategic scenario, there is need for a rethink. It is very necessary for India to build its own military Drone, even though it may have to import a large percentage of parts including sensors. Unfortunately, unlike the Indian Navy opted for indigenously made ships as a policy, Indian Air force must realise that indigenous production is an imperative necessity for a war due to its local repair and ease of availability of parts. India’s own effort at building Drones like Nishant or Panchi had to be called off. The Golden Hawk, Pushpak and Black Kite all had similar fates. The case of Rustom 1 Drone also developed by DRDO as a large Drone, has been unfortunate, one of the reasons being, unlike the Navy, the Air Force did not integrate and work with the developer of Rustom. Consequently, Rustom was never accepted by the Air Force. The Advanced Light Helicopter has a similar story, reluctantly accepted by the Indian Air Force but surprisingly turned out to be a success. Rustom II is the bigger version and an eagerly awaited indigenous medium altitude Drone with endurance of 18 hours and height capability of 27,000 feet.

Will Drones be manufactured in large quantities in India or will they continue to imported?

The technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap (TPCR)-2013 document issued by the Integrated Defence Staff (HQID), a Tri- service organisation has projected the various types and sizes of UAVs required by the Military. It classifies them in six categories (High altitude/ medium altitude long endurance, Tactical, Unmanned Combat Aerial vehicle (UCAV), micro/ mini and vertical takeoff and landing). They also project the desired endurance, altitude, payloads and weather capability). Since India has a large requirement of military drones, there is a potential for them to be manufactured indigenously

Developing an Eco-system for Drone ownership and manufacturing:

The potential for civil Drone Industry in India is huge and a successful Drone manufacturing industrial Eco- system provides for R&D and indigenous manufacture of Military Drones. However, so far India has maintained a negative policy towards Drones and in spite of the assertions maintained by the Civil Aviation Ministry that India would emerge as the largest drone manufacturing country; the policies on Drone regulations so far have not supported those statements. The recently published Drone Rules of June 2021(replacing UAS Rules 2021 of March 12, 2021) have a new and liberal policy, which may allow the Drone eco- system to flourish for manufacturing.

Drones in India are facing a conundrum. The government has gone out of its way to stifle the civil Drone policy and thereby not permitting the development of the environment that is necessary to develop a dual use drone industry, and on the other, the Military has become a major importer of drones with little local production. In 2014, the DGCA banned use of drones totally, stifling the growth of the nascent industry and setting it back by almost a decade. Thereafter, in 2018 it issued draft guidelines for the use and manufacture of drones in India, which were not entirely favourable for operation and local ownership, and manufacture. However, with the recent July 2021 Rules, one can expect a major change in the Drone Eco-system both for owning and operating Drones as well as for its manufacture.

The obsession with potential misuse of Drone is real but banning Drones in the civil space by DGCA in 2014 was never an answer. Adoption of Anti- Drone policy is necessary and is similar to sudden imposition of security for Air Travel in 2001 after the 9/11 incident in the US. Therefore the Government needs to adopt an Anti-Drone policy along with a progressive Drone policy to overcome the threat of rouge drones, which are now becoming an increasing threat, especially after the Jammu Air Base attack. An outward and forward-looking policy is required to create an environment for the growth of Drone manufacturing for both civil and defence purposes

The author is the Chairman of International Foundation for Aviation, Aerospace and Drones.

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