Drones In Indian Armed Forces

Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot on board. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which include additionally a ground-based controller and a system of communications with the (UAV).


Surveillance, reconnaissance for intelligence gathering and even carrying out combat missions behind enemy lines, without risking pilots or soldiers on the ground in tough mountainous terrains, would be the key objectives of these unmanned aerial vehicles.

The synergy derived from the combination of technology with operational art is taking warfare to new realms which were never anticipated. While there are many challenges, but there are also unbounded opportunities. Some are evolutionary-and some are truly revolutionary. For example in the aerospace realm even as fifth-generation aircraft like the F/A-22, the F-35, and the Sukhoi PAK-FA, become operational, increasingly capable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are carving out their own niche. This brief review examines UAV functions, their expanding missions and the capabilities of some of the current UAVs in use in various militaries.


UAVs perform a wide variety of functions. The majority of these functions pertains to reconnaissance and is some form of remote sensing.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing functions include electromagnetic spectrum sensors, biological sensors, and chemical sensors. Electromagnetic sensors typically include visual spectrum, infrared, or near infrared cameras as well as radar systems. Other electromagnetic wave detectors such as microwave and ultraviolet spectrum sensors may also be used, but are uncommon. Biological sensors are sensors capable of detecting the airborne presence of various microorganisms and other biological factors. Chemical sensors use laser spectroscopy to analyze the concentrations of each element in the air.

Counter – IEDs

Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL ), UAVs operated in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown their usefulness in counter improvised explosive device (C-IEDs) tasks. Vertical takeoff and landing UAVs are especially versatile in locating IEDs with the air vehicle capable of hovering at a distance to find and locate IEDs.


UAVs additionally offer an alternative to manned strike aircraft providing both intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability as well as suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and deep penetration capability where there is high threat from enemy air defences.

Land Border Surveillance

In the domain of land border surveillance, there is a wide spectrum of possible technical means that can be employed to provide effective surveillance including: daylight and infrared cameras, ground radars, fixed ground sensors, mobile systems, manned aircraft and satellites. However, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) could also play an important role in further enhancing border surveillance in the future, though they face a number of technical and other challenges.

Exploration Missions

UAVs can be used to perform geophysical surveys, in particular geomagnetic surveys where the processed measurements of the differential Earth’s magnetic field strength are used to calculate the nature of the underlying magnetic rock structure. A knowledge of the underlying rock structure helps trained geophysicists to predict the location of mineral deposits. The production side of oil and gas exploration and production entails the monitoring of the integrity of oil and gas pipelines and related installations. Monitoring activity could be performed using digital cameras mounted on one, or more, UAVs.


UAVs can transport goods using various means based on the configuration of the UAV itself. Most payloads are stored in an internal payload bay somewhere in the airframe. For many helicopter configurations, external payloads can be tethered to the bottom of the airframe. With fixed wing UAVs, payloads can also be attached to the airframe, but aerodynamics of the aircraft with the payload must be assessed.

Scientific Research

Unmanned aircraft are also used for scientific research in areas which may be too dangerous for piloted craft. Examples are of use during Hurricanes or in extreme cold and severe climates.

Armed Attacks

UAVs armed with missiles are now used as platforms for hitting ground targets in sensitive areas. Armed UAVs are being used by the US military for hitting militants and terrorist leaders. The advantage of using an unmanned vehicle, rather than a manned aircraft in such cases is to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment should the aircraft be shot down and the pilots captured. Use of MQ-1 Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan and in tribal areas of Pakistan and in Yemen by the US, are now well known. Similarly Israel is using UAVs armed with missiles in Palestine. Many cases of targeting civilians have also been reported by the media proving that targeting without proper verification can lead to collateral damage.

Search and Rescue

UAVs play a very significant role in search and rescue and this is likely to increase in the future. This was demonstrated by the successful use of UAVs during the 2008 hurricanes that struck Louisiana and Texas. It is believed that Predators, operating between 18,000–29,000 feet above sea level, have performed search and rescue and damage assessment. The Predator’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is a sophisticated all weather sensor capable of providing photographic- like images through clouds, rain or fog, and in daytime or nighttime conditions; all in real-time.


UAV design and production is a global activity, with manufacturers all across the world. The United States and Israel were initial pioneers in this technology, and US manufacturers had a market share of over 60 per cent in 2006. The share is due to increase by 5-10 per cent through 2016. Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are the dominant manufacturers in this industry, on the strength of the Global Hawk and Predator/Mariner systems. Israeli and European manufacturers form a second tier due to lower indigenous investments, and the governments of those nations have initiatives to acquire US systems due to higher levels of capability. European market share represented just 4 per cent of global revenue in 2006.

Miniature and Micro UAVs

Smaller, tactical UAVs are being developed to support tactical units with very short range “over the hill” and “around the corner” intelligence, and assist in force protection. While each mission requires a different profile and capabilities, the man portable Miniature Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) are designed to provide reasonably good performance at an affordable price. To effectively support the field troops, smaller UAVs are designed, ranging from man portable (back packable) systems to insect-sized “mesicopters”, and miniature “smart dust” sensors. They could be launched by hand, deployed by larger UAVs, or ejected from artillery or mortar projectiles, as expendable sensors. These systems are broadly designated as MAV.

Endurance UAVs

As far as unmanned aircraft systems have come in the past decade, the emerging race to satisfy the US military’s demand for unblinking sensor and communications relay coverage over vast areas will push designs and technology for unmanned aircraft even further. The latest endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle flight now officially belongs to Zephyr, the solar powered UAV. The Zephyr UAV achieved three world records in July 2010. The UAV stayed aloft for 14 nights (336 hours 22 minutes) at an altitude of 70,740ft (21,561m).


The military role of unmanned aircraft systems is growing at unprecedented rates. In 2005, tactical- and theater-level unmanned aircraft alone had flown over 1,00,000 flight hours in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which they were organised under Task Force Liberty in Afghanistan and Task Force ODIN in Iraq. Rapid advances in technology are enabling more and more capability to be placed on smaller airframes, which is spurring a large increase in the number of small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) being deployed on the battlefield.
As the capabilities grow for all types of UAS, nations continue to subsidize their research and development, leading to further advances and enabling them to perform a multitude of missions. UAS no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, although this still remains their predominant type. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack, drone strikes, suppression or destruction of enemy air defense, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, and derivations of these themes. These UAS range in cost from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars, with aircraft weighing from less than half kilogram to over 18 tons.


UAVs are low-cost, low-risk, high payoff intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (TA) systems. UAVs can be deployed quickly to cover vast areas and, hence, enhance responsiveness. The employment of UAVs improves situational awareness, helps to increase the operational tempo and reduces the sensorto- shooter time lag. When employed in conjunction with other sensors, UAVs assist in confirming or negating the efficacy of information gathered and, thus, qualitatively improve the intelligence available to commanders. Some of the UAVs in use or being developed are given below:


It is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) developed by India's ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment), a branch of DRDO for the Indian Armed Forces. The Nishant UAV is primarily tasked with intelligence gathering over enemy territory and also for reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, damage assessment. The UAV requires rail-launching from a hydro-pneumatic launcher and recovered by a parachute system. The 380kg Nishant is one of the few UAVs in the world in its weight-class capable of being catapult-launched and recovered by using a parachute. This eliminates the need for a runway as in case of the conventional takeoff and landing with wheels.


India already had about 12 Heron-1 drones and they played a crucial part in search and rescue operations following the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. IAI Searcher tactical UAVs and their high-end Heron UAV counterparts were used to locate trapped survivors and missing bodies near the Andaman and Nicobar islands, relaying clear live feed photographs while in flight, and allowing immediate response as soon as survivors or victims were identified on screen.

The Heron UAV is reportedly capable of flying for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes around 32,000 feet. IAI lists flight time as >40 hours, and says that it has demonstrated 52 hours of continuous flight. It has a maximum range of about 3,000 km and can carry a maximum payload weighing 250 kg/550 lbs. As a large MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV, it’s built to carry multiple payloads at a time for a variety of missions.

The Indian government had approved the purchase of armed UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries, following a fast tracking of the program. The $400 million acquisition will see ten IAI Heron TP drones join other Israeli designs operated by the Indian Air Force, with Harpy loitering munitions. It seems that Heron is now being operated by all three Services i.e. Army, Navy and the Air Force.


The IAI Harpy is a loitering munition produced by Israel Aerospace Industries. The Harpy is designed to attack radar systems and is optimised for the SEAD role. It carries a high explosive warhead. It has a maximum speed of 185 km/hr and 500 km range of flight. The Harpy has been sold to several foreign nations, including South Korea, Turkey, India, and China.


All three Services operate the Searcher series of UAVs. The Indian Army has reportedly deployed its first batch of 25 Israeli-made Searcher Mark II unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over its frontiers with Pakistan and China. India had purchased 100 of the reconnaissance drones at a cost of $750 million. The Indian Army operates both Searcher Mk I and II. The Searcher Mark II is produced by Israel Aircraft Industries. It can remain airborne for 16 hours and has a maximum range of 150 kilometers at the relatively high altitude of 18,500 feet, making it especially suitable for missions over the Himalayas. Developed by Israel, this UAV can attain a speed of 200km/hour and can fly up to 18 hours at the relatively high altitude of 18,500 feet, making it especially suitable for missions over the Himalayas. Indian Army, Navy and Air Force are the users in Indian armed forces. It performs the role of reconnaissance in the armed forces.


It is an unnamed combat air vehicle, a production of DRDO dedicated to all three services of Indian armed forces. * It is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance uncrewed air vehicle (UAV) developed by DRDO for the Armed forces. Rustom has three variants like Rustom-I, Rustom-H, Rustom-II. Payload capacity of 95 kgs and have a length around 5.12m.  This pilotless target aircraft is manufactured by HAL and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of DRDO for the primary use of Army, Navy and qAirforce. The main purpose of its development is target acquisition and reconnaissance. It has a rocket assisted launch and lands through a parachute. The glamour of this UAV attracted many countries like Singapore, Israel, etc.


Imperial Eagle

This is an Indian light-weight mini-unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed by the DRDO alongside Aeronautical Development Establishment, and the National Aerospace Laboratories and supported by private vendors. Its primary users will be the National Security Guard and the military services. The Imperial Eagle weighs 2.5 kg and can carry either a daylight camera or thermal night vision camera.  Designed to be carried in soldier’s backpack, be hand-launched and recoverable through a soft landing. The primary advantage of the vehicle is that it functions on autopilot. Its orientation can be controlled using a dedicated real-time operating system (RTOS).


The Netra is an Indian, light-weight, autonomous UAV for surveillance and reconnaissance operations. The DRDO Research and Development Establishment (R&DE), and Idea Forge, a Mumbai-based private firm developed Netra. Netra can also is launched from a small clearing, and it can fly up to a distance of 2.5 km from its take-off point. It can carry out surveillance in an area of 1.5 km Line of Sight (LOS) at the height of 300 m, for 30 minutes on a single battery charge. It has a high-resolution camera with zoom to facilitate more comprehensive surveillance and can also carry a thermal camera for night operations.

Lakshya-Pilotless Target aircraft

This pilotless target aircraft is manufactured by HAL and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of DRDO for the primary use of Army, Navy and Airforce. The main purpose of its development is target acquisition and reconnaissance. It has a rocket assisted launch and lands through a parachute. The glamour of this UAV attracted many countries like Singapore, Israel, etc.



In a major step forward for what is by far India’s most ambitious aviation exercise, the first budgetary funds have begun to flow into Project Ghatak. The project began as the DRDO’s Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft – AURA.

Ghatak is likely to be powered by a modified dry thrust version of the Kaveri engine. It will have a flying wing planform with internal weapons and will sport stealth characteristics developed wholly in-house. While the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA ) is overseeing the programme along with the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the real R&D is being front footed by two academic institutions: IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur.

UAV Panchi

Punchi is a wheeled version of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Nishant which is undergoing trials. UAV Panchi has some plus points as compared to UAV Nishant. It doesn’t contain parachutes and landing bags which reduces its weight and increases its endurance and its small size as compared to Nishant makes it hard to find in the enemy’s sky.

Predator Guardian Drones from US

The US has cleared the sale of predator Guardian drones to India. India is looking to buy 22 predator Guardian drones from the US for $2 billion. India is buying the unarmed Guardian unmanned aircraft system (UAS) which was developed by the US Office of Air and Marine (OAM ) in partnership with the US Coast Guard. The Guardian has been modified from a standard Reaper with structural, avionic and communication enhancements and an added Raytheon SeaVue Marine Search Radar. Its Electro-optical/Infrared Sensor is optimized for maritime operations.

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (sometimes called Predator B) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) primarily for the United States Air Force. The engine of the aircraft is integrated with Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEC). It enhances the performance of the engine and increases its capability to prevent wasteful consumption of fuel at lower altitudes. Currently the drone is being used by Australia, Dominican Republic, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States. The aircraft can be flown for over 27 hours in the air at a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet and a maximum speed of 240 KTA S. With a fault tolerant, triple-redundant flight control system, the drone has more than 90 per cent system operational availability.


Military experts say armed drones will scale up the Indian military’s offensive capabilities against China in the Himalayan borders and terrorist hideouts in PoK.

India has been using drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), over the Bay of Bengal, Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Arabian Sea, and areas around Maldivian waters. Indian military planners claim that after having armed drone capability, the Indian forces will be able to launch remote-controlled operations and surgical strikes, such as on terrorist hideouts in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and engage targets on the Himalayan borders with China. To date, the Indian military only operates drones from Israel for surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

Considering China’s developments in this field, the day is not far when the illogically hostile Pakistan will receive these Chinese built aerial systems. India’s present holdings of UAVs are extremely low and there is a need for greater quantities to meet battlefield requirements for the future. The versatility of the UAVs has been demonstrated particularly in strikes against terrorist camps in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Indian Armed Forces have to judiciously examine their future requirements of UAVs. Various development issues, including technology milestones, could be examined by the three Services in conjunction with DRDO.

The US and Israel, the leading edge manufacturers of unmanned systems, should be persuaded to partner with Indian private sector entities for the development of indigenous unmanned systems. Of course, there would be resistance from the well entrenched but grossly incompetent public sector and that is where the government has to show resolve, if India has to move forward in this arena.

Recent forays into the UAV domain by private Indian entities appear to be encouraging; the most significant being the setting up of Adani Elbit UAV manufacturing facility in Hyderabad. This is a JV between Adani Defence and Aerospace, part of Adani group and Israel-based Elbit Systems. It is the first private UAV manufacturing unit in India and the first one outside Israel to manufacture an Israeli UAV, namely, the Hermes 900 MALE and later, the Hermes 450.

The steadily increasing role that drones are playing in warfare of all hues is self-evident, and there is a need for importance to be given to arming the IAF with UAVs/UCAVs in larger numbers and with greater potency.

The need for the Indian Armed Forces to buy or lease UAVs immediately is critical and cannot be deferred nor held hostage to Atmanirbhar and Make-in-India programmes.

Increasingly capable UAVs, both in the combat and reconnaissance roles, are carving their own niche. The Indian Armed Forces apparently have a clear road map and all the three Services should have a substantial numbers of UAVs/ UCAVs/ UAS in their inventories.

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