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India’s quest for armed drones




Mains Paper 3: Science & Technology | Science and Technology- developments and their applications and effects in everyday life ; indigenization of technology and developing new technology

Op-ed analyses the utility of drones, India’s readiness for their use and other issues. Can give good points for Mains answers.

Prelims level: Drones (Guardian, Heron TP, Harpy, Nishant), Sukhoi 30 MKI, Rafale.

Mains level: Acquisition of drones by India and their future.



  1. The US government’s decision to grant India the licence for the export of 22 Guardian drones through the US foreign military sales programme will address gaps in India’s maritime surveillance capabilities
  2. The additional capability will free up the navy’s Boeing P-81s for anti-submarine warfare (ASW)
  3. This will be critical given the increasing forays of Chinese submarines in the India Ocean region and India’s capacity-deficit in ASW


  1. India’s quest for armed drones in the absence of a defined strategy for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has created misconceptions about their utility for India
  2. Questions are being raised about their use in conducting cross-border strikes or “surgical strikes” against Pakistan-based terrorists

Ordering drones from major defence partners:

  1. India’s pursuit of armed drones has led it to order 10 Heron TP drones from Israel
  2. These will be India’s first armed drones, significantly expanding the aerial offensive capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF)
  3. They can be used for both surveillance as well as combat and support roles, and can carry air-to-ground missiles to take out hostile targets

Current fleet of IAF:

  1. The IAF currently operates a fleet of IAI-made Harpy self-destructing anti-radar drones and IAI searcher UAVs and indigenously built Nishant drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering

Advantage of UAVs:

  1. The use of UAVs permits Indian policymakers to exercise the use of force while substantially lowering the risk to military personnel
  2. It also acts as a force multiplier in enhancing surveillance capabilities
  3. This expands the variety of missions the Indian Armed Forces can conduct
  4. The Indian military hopes that armed UAVs will give it the capability to conduct symbolic retaliatory attacks against Pakistan-based terrorists while limiting the violation of Pakistani sovereignty and hopefully avoiding any escalatory spiral

Will Indian idea be successful?

  1. Modern air defences are more dangerous and effective than ever before
  2. Case in point, the US military has rarely used drones in defended or contested air spaces
  3. Armed drones against targets in Afghanistan or Yemen have succeeded as these have undefended air spaces or in Syria and Pakistan because air defences have not been employed to target them
  4. Indian military and strategic community idea on the successful use of armed drones for “surgical strikes”, etc., is contingent on operating in a non-existent air defence environment

Is India ready for idea of drones?

  1. There is little indication so far from the IAF regarding the strategic/tactical employment of UCAVs
  2. The IAF’s “Air Power Doctrine”, last published in 2012, failed to once mention “unmanned” or “drone”
  3. The IAF’s “Indigenization Roadmap 2016-2025” barely mentions UAVs apart from the fact that the IAF needs to possess highly autonomous strike capabilities against the full spectrum of potential targets

What India actually needs?

  1. To mitigate the threat to manned and unmanned aircraft from air defences, India needs long-range stand-off weapons systems
  2. Along with that, advances in intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance are required
  3. The under-development air-launched Brahmos for the Sukhoi-30 MKI or the 300km SCALP air-to-ground cruise missiles being acquired for the yet-to-be-inducted Dassault Rafale give India more credible retaliatory options in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir vis-à-vis vulnerable and expensive armed UAVs