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How drones are transforming warfare in West Asia

How drones are transforming warfare in West Asia

In an increasingly trigger-happy world, it is new technologies like these that will help keep the powder dry

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Last Updated : 19 April 2024, 06:29 IST
Last Updated : 19 April 2024, 06:29 IST
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On April 13, Iran launched armed drones and missiles against Israel — the first time Teheran directly attacked the Jewish State from its soil — in retaliation for an Arpil 1 Israeli missile strike on Iran’s counsalte in Damscus, Syria that killed top Iranian military officers.

Iran’s aerial assault resulted in only a few casualties on the ground and minor damage to an army base in Israel. However, militaries across the world closely watch these developments for a very different reason: the defensive and offensive technology innovations used in the conflict, which indicate the changing contours of a war dominated by drones and counter-drone technologies.

For instance, the Iranians used scores of ‘suicide drones’ each carrying several kilos of explosives, along with ballistic missiles and advanced cruise missiles for the attack. These were launched in multi-phased strikes probably to overwhelm Israeli air defence systems (ADS). Never mind if half of the ballistic missiles failed to launch and most of the drones and cruise missiles were shot down by Israeli mobile missile batteries.

This remarkable interception rate clearly owed to Israel’s multi-layered ADS that comprises the David’s Sling (for medium-range missiles), the Iron Dome (for short-range rockets) and the US-made Patriot missile defence system which downs aircraft and drones. For long-range missiles, Israel’s protective ‘shield’ uses the Arrow, which tracks and destroys incoming targets outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The Arrow has neutralised most of the long-range missiles launched by Houthi militants 2,300 kilometres away in Yemen since the war in Gaza began more than six months ago.

It is believed that Israel’s formidable ADS will become more powerful when the Iron Beam system (which uses laser technology to hit short-range rockets and artillery that are too small for the Iron Dome to intercept) becomes fully operational.

The standoff in West Asia is the latest example of how armed and unarmed drones — and their autonomous avatars (which fly without a link between drone and operator) — can dramatically transform warfare. First developed as radio-controlled aerial vehicles more than a century ago, drones have evolved from being used for anti-aircraft target practice in the 1930s, and reconnaissance and early warning in the subsequent decades to the sophisticated robotic air warriors we see today. Depending on their configuration, these aerial vehicles are force multipliers that relay real-time battlefield data for directing fire with as much precision as they execute precision strikes on distant targets using satellite guidance.

Tracking these combat drones is difficult even for advanced ADS and their increasing use impacts the battlefield decisions of commanders which, in turn, decide the fate of battles. For example, besieged troops are no longer dependent on unpredictable communication lines to call up aerial support; instead, they can send up armed drones to make bombing attacks on enemy positions. Drones even carry out dangerous missions that used to be flown by combat pilots till recently. This is happening in Ukraine where drones from both Ukraine and Russia have largely replaced crewed aircraft, cutting operational costs by thousands of times without risking human lives. No wonder Eric Schmidt, former Google chief executive and Pentagon adviser, described future warfare as being “dictated and waged by drones”.

India’s drone policy draws from defence public sector units, industry, tech startups, and university labs to help the armed forces gear up for these new-age battlefields. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has indigenously developed the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) for the navy and air force. A high-speed reconnaissance flying machine that resembles a tailless ‘flying wing’, the remotely piloted AURA carries laser-guided missiles and munitions. In December, India became one of a few countries to master the flying wing technology by successfully testing the AURA in its final configuration: a scaled-down version of the futuristic combat drone.

India also recently acquired 31 MQ-9B armed drones capable of anti-submarine warfare and over-the-horizon targeting from the United States. Fifteen of these surveillance and reconnaissance drones will secure sea lanes of operation for the navy while the army and air force will have eight each of the drone’s land version. The MQ-9Bs can remain airborne for over 35 hours carrying four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kilos of bombs. Besides state-of-the-art radar systems and air defence guns, India’s counter-drone capabilities include the Russian-made S-400s which can neutralise drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles within a range of 400 kilometres up to an altitude of 30 kilometres.

The fact that terrorists use drones as handy weapons is a huge challenge for armed forces, especially since traditional methods of destroying these aerial robots cost much more than the drones themselves. To this end, the Army Air Defence Corps deserves credit for transforming the ageing L-70 air defence guns into hi-tech counter-drone systems with help from industry. This reiterates India’s credentials as an emerging hub of innovation in drone research and development. In an increasingly trigger-happy world, it is new technologies like these that will help keep the powder dry.

(Prakash Chandra is former editor of the Indian Defence Review. He writes on aerospace and strategic affairs.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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