Engaged in a bitter border clash, both India and China have realized the value of battle drones and are unleashing their best UAVs to keep a hawks eye on each other and pre-empt the opponent.
Israel Aerospace Industries is the foremost supplier of UAVs to the Indian Army, with the Heron and Searchers drones used for reconnaissance and strikes, and Harpies and Harops used for anti-radiation purposes.
In November 2005, media reports claimed that India was set to purchase about 50 Heron Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries in a deal worth $220 million. They were planned to be used for reconnaissance missions on India’s mountainous borders with China and Pakistan and along India’s long coastal waters.
India was said to have been close to sealing the deal in 2004, but it was postponed due to the change in government in New Delhi. Reportedly, the Heron’s excellent performance during the December 2004 tsunami clinched the deal between Israel and India. Its performance since then, and the Chinese aggression on the Indian border, has green-lighted a follow-on contract.
The Indian armed forces had again proposed buying the Heron armed drones in 2012. According to senior defence ministry officials, the proposal did not get political backing in UPA-2. They said that the project was revived and fast-tracked by the Modi government earlier this year.
Last week, the Indian government quietly approved the purchase of 10 missile-armed drones from Israel — a crucial acquisition that will enhance India’s cross-border military strike capability. The deal is worth $400 million.
“There is a need for acquisition of Heron UAVs to add to the existing fleet of these drones for meeting the requirements of our Air Force fleet. We are planning to place orders for these UAVs,” government sources told ANI.
As reported earlier by EurAsian Times, India has deployed UAVs in contested border areas to monitor all activities of the Chinese troops. In eastern Ladakh, the Indian Army has not only stationed additional soldiers but has also intensified round-the-clock surveillance of the LAC through UAVs.
“Drones can easily access places that are inaccessible for humans, and monitor important sites that are too hard to patrol,” said Zhou Chenming, a military analyst. “And India has shown it at a disadvantage in both the quality and quantity of its drones.”
“It is very good if something like this is happening. Instead of sending a pilot in a high-risk area, it is best to use an armed drone. The system can also be used for a surprise, sneak attack,” said PV Naik, former Air Chief.
The Heron is an 8.5-metre (28-foot) long medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) combat UAV with a payload of up to 250kg (550lbs). It has a top speed of 200km/h (155mph), can operate for up to 52 hours and has a service ceiling – or maximum altitude – of 10,000 metres.
It can carry a payload of over 1000 kg. Whereas, the Searcher’s service ceiling is only up to 6100 metres only. With the Line of Actual Control (LAC) extending to the world’s highest mountains, with an average altitude of over 4,000 metres and some peaks rising beyond 8,000 metres, the Searchers’ role remains limited.
China is one of the biggest manufacturer and exporters of UAVs. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) widely used UAV, the GJ-2 strike model is an 11-metre long MALE with a payload of 480kg. It can carry up to 12 missiles or bombs, has a top speed of 380km/h, a cruising speed of 200km/h and a service ceiling of 9,000 metres.
Chinese experts consider it faster and better armed than India’s Heron. It is unclear how many of these models the PLA possesses but it recently sold 48 of them to Pakistan under the export brand name, Wing Loong II.
There are reports that PLA has deployed another drone CH-4 which underwent tests in the Tibetan plateau region in 2018, and the BZK-005C – specifically modified for use at high altitudes.
“For India, the procurement process is slow and the amount [of UAVs it has] is limited. Also, no advanced UAVs are cheap – except the Chinese ones – so I don’t see them overpowering China on the border in terms of drones,” Zhou said.
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also pursuing indigenous drones – Rustom and Rustom-II. They are MALE attack drones with medium-altitude long-endurance. Currently, the project is several years away from weaponised induction and armed flight trials are yet to be carried out.
With rising tensions on the LAC, India needs to up its ante to be able to effectively fight PLA’s lethal UAVs in the battle of drones.