Drones which dropped small explosive packages on the Jammu air base just missed hitting — not by much — a helicopter unit parking area and the air traffic control tower. Consider this a trial run.
What if a parked hepter had been struck? Depending on whether it was armed and ready with a full ordnance load of missiles, rockets and bombs, and a full tank, and on how many other hepters were in the vicinity, this would have been a humungous fratricidal fire attack — the first exploding hepter destroying other aircraft.
That the realtime photoimagery or IR sensor guidance was available to the drone platforms and that the hepters were in the crosshairs suggests its handlers were after big targets and wanted this to have a big demonstration effect. Logically, then the attacked aircraft would have to be expensive ones; in this instance, that means the targets were the attack helos stationed at the Jammu AFB at the time, or deployed there for the nonce.
There are two types of high value attack hepters in service with the IAF — the AH-64 Apache and the Russian Mi-24. In rounded figures, the Apache costs Rs. 695 crores or US$ 100 million each; the Mi-24 comes in at around US$ 14 million. If it is officially contended that what the drones missed were utility/transport hepters then the unit cost of the Russian Mi-17 is some US$ 9 million.
Now, let’s calculate the exchange ratio — the ratio of the cost of the drone lost to the cost of the destroyed hepters — the adversary would have obtained had the attack operation succeeded. The cost of the drone, assuming it was equipped with miniaturised camera, etc and a communications link, wouldn’t have exceeded Rs. 2 lakhs or US$ 2,700. Had the drone taken out, say, one Apache worth $100 million the exchange ratio just in monetary terms would have been 1:37000!! Had two more Apaches been thus destroyed the ratio would have mounted to 1:111,000. If we assume a single Mi-24 was hit, the exchange ratio would have been still terrifically lopsided at 1: 5186. In case it was the Mi-17, the E-ratio would be 1:3333.
You get the idea.
A former CAS, S Krishnaswamy, has penned an op-ed, post-Jammu attack, when everybody has suddenly become alive to the threat posed by drones/UAVs. (https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/drone-detection-system-jammu-airfield-bomb-attack-7380116/). He says drones are means of terrorism, that “hundreds of drones” could be launched by Pakistan to “harrass” India, and then alights on the surefire solution senior Indian military officers always do when they get the problem wrong and are otherwise fresh out of ideas — he talks imports! By way of a throwaway line Krishnaswamy mentions helicopters in anti-drone role. Presumably, he is referring to the directed energy (laser) doo-dah on the Apache able to disable lowflying drones. The Apache in anti-drone role, however, is nonsense because it will require an improbably large fleet of AH-64s to be in the air all the time, 24/7/365! This Apache mention is a prelude to his recommending buying systems to detect and to destroy drones abroad.
From this ex-Air Chief Marshal’s piece — one thing is clear. He hasn’t a clue about the evolving nature of drones and neither does the IAF brass who, over the years, have never seriously mulled the drone/UAV as principal offensive weapon system and surveillance platform. Tool of harrassment — really??!! Nor how drones/UAVs are helping manned combat aircraft to obsolesce fast because anything worth targeting is more vulnerable to small, highly agile, inexpensive drones than a new fangled combat aircraft our blinkered fighter-jock community leading the IAF into the future may insist on procuring. And he and the IAF pooh-bahs know even less about indigenous capability.
In this respect, a small but revealing episode. The day before yesterday, out of the blue, a retired Vice Chief of the Air Staff called me up. He asked me to republish an op-ed of mine he says he read 10-15 years ago that warned about the danger from drones, which he said was “prophetic”. He recalled how he had gone with my article to meet the then Air Force Chief and his Principal Staff Officers to ask them to do what I had urged in that piece: Take drones seriously, because they are the future, only to be told by them that “Karnad is a maverick”. Maverick in IAF terminology is a term of abuse.
Actually, I first talked about drones and unmanned aerial platforms making combat aircraft obsolete in 1986 in a two part series published in the then Khushwant Singh-edited Illustrated Weekly of India. It was written from Washington and after discussing the subject with many leading lights in the US, such as Jacques Gansler, then Under-Secretary of Defense in-charge of acquisitions. Given the technology trend path, I had recommended in those articles that, rather than waste time and money on the Light Combat Aircraft project that was just getting started and which aircraft I predicted would be dated by the time it hit the tarmac, HAL, IAF and the Indian government would be better off if they concentrated on designing and developing a family of drones/UAVs for various roles in aerial warfare of the future.
It earned me, on my return to India, the anger of the then science adviser to defence minister V Arunachalam and a trip to the LCA project in Bangalore and a briefing by its director, Dr Kota Harinarayanan. Enjoyably, I was, perhaps, amongst the first outsiders to actually sit in a live LCA glass cockpit mockup with fly-by-wire, and engage in what can be termed a dynamic video game of an aerial fight of me in the LCA versus one, two, or three “raiders” being managed by the head of the avionics software group, a US-trained engineer. (This was a long time ago and I hope I got most things right about the B’lore trip!) And I liked what I saw.
It is another matter that seeing the IAF time and again make a hash of things by choosing yet another foreign fighter plane and waste national resources while stepmothering the indigenous LCA into near extinction, I have been all for the Tejas to make it and for its technologies to be continuously upgraded and for larger, more modern and lethal variants to be funded. Meaning, if the IAF is damn fool enough to believe manned aircraft will be viable well into the 21st century, then I’d rather the government pour national resources — your and my tax money — into the homegrown Tejas and Indian industry than in a deal for an imported item that will improve the bottomlines of Boeing or Lockheed or Sukhoi or Mikoyan or Dassault or Saab or EADS.
The reason I say the IAF brass are clueless is mainly because they seem entirely unaware of the drone/UAV technologies — hardware and software — of the most sophisticated kind being designed, developed and marketed in India. According to a hard count by Group Captain RK Narang, there are 26 private sector companies, who are at the cutting edge of drone tech and doing well. He made this list for SITARA (Science, Indigenous Technology & Research Accelerator) — a forum founded and headed by a retired diplomat, Smita Purushottam, which has relentlessly pushed indigenous technology and has repeatedly succeeded in getting the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene, especially in the telcommunications area where the Ministry of Telecommunications and its various agencies seem bent on sabotaging Narendra Modi’s atmanirbharta policy by letting in foreign 5G technology vendors by the backdoor. A seasoned IAF helicopter pilot and author of the usefully informative 2020 book — ‘India’s Quest for UAVs and Challenges’, Narang was, until he retired earlier this year, the leading proponent of UAVs in IAF. One suspects though that while his seniors in service indulged him by supporting his research, his recommendations were not taken too seriously by Air HQrs. Hope they will do so now.
It seems to me that were these 26 firms to work together per a single plan and integrate their resources, they would produce a world class series of surveillance, warfighting and attack drones including drone swarms operating in distributed (artificial) intelligence mode, as also anti-drone technologies. Such an enterprise should long ago have been underway with the IAF helming it. But considering its regressive mindset the chances of its doing so are, well, zero. In the main because IAF brass fear that drones/UAVs will divert resources from combat aircraft acquisition programmes they are wedded to come hell or high water! Such purchases will be made even if these aircraft stand next to no chance of surviving actual fight with drones. Indeed, these aircraft will be lucky to get off the ground in the face of attacking UAV/D-swarms.
Relying on DRDO to perfect its drone and anti-drone systems, like land-based and airborne low energy lasers to shoot down drones/UAVs, and IT systems to scramble their guidance loops, is unnecessarily to lose time and money. Most countries are fast-forwarding their drone/anti-drone projects by going commercial — that is, getting companies vending whole drone systems and related technologies for commercial use, to build more rugged and capable drones and unmanned aircraft to milspecs for military use. This is the way to go and Narang’s list of Indian companies should ideally be immediately involved and commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to have time-certain delivery of finished drone weapons and surveillance systems and anti-drone tech systems. Because this is private sector where time is money there’ll be no time or cost over-runs.
Except, as in all advanced technology areas where procurement is featured, the process is deliberately elongated by everybody in the acquisition hierarchy and in the DRDO in the hope that IAF and Indian govt will opt for the usual, derated, inherently compromised, foreign hardware, and that this will involve a lot of foreign trips, lavish “entertainment” — “commissions” anybody? and, who knows what else. Can the Indian firms provide them such goodies? Of course, not.
So import everything!! Third World/Fourth World modus operandi zindabad!!