Lt Gen H S Panag (Retd)

After the Chinese pre-emptive operational manoeuvre to secure the 1959 Claim Line and the ensuing confrontation with massive deployment of forces by both sides in 2020, I wrote two articles highlighting the Indian Army’s shortcomings to thwart the People’s Liberation Army’s high-technology-driven offensive operations. A lot has happened in the last four years, particularly in the field of drones.

Hardly a day goes by without news of various types of drones being inducted into the armed forces. A large number of military drone manufacturers have jumped into the fray from corporations such as Adani Group, TATA, Reliance, and a large number of small and medium scale enterprises, and start-ups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India has the potential to become a global drone hub by 2030. As per some estimates, about 2,000 to 2,500 drones have been inducted so far and many more are in the pipeline. Approximately ₹3,000 to 3,500 crore has been spent on drones, spare parts and maintenance contracts under emergency and special financial powers delegated to the armed forces.

So, have our armed forces caught up with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at least in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)? In terms of numbers, the gap has certainly been narrowed but in terms of effectiveness as a force multiplier system, we are still miles behind.

Atmanirbharta And Drones

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the armed forces have done well to include all categories of UAVs in the negative list for imports. This means that UAVs have to be indigenously produced under the various categories of Make in India initiative with the probable exception of strategic UAVs like MQ-9B Sea/Sky Guardian.

It is only a matter of time before India’s drone industry breaches this frontier too. Adani Defence Systems is making the Hermes 900 or Drishti-10 multi-payload Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV after winning contracts from the Army and Navy. And—lo and behold—the firm is exporting them back to Israel.

The armed forces have also issued a forecast of requirements. This has galvanised the private industry, which has been quick to bring in foreign partners. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is cooperating with the private sector by passing on its technology. The MoD’s initiative Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDeX) is also paying dividends.

Without government and private sector investment in R&D, world class drones can not be produced. The central government can use mechanisms such as iDeX, the ‘Make’ process of the Defence Acquisition Policy, and Army Design Bureau for R&D funding. For each project, the armed forces must formalise a clear mission statement.

General Staff Qualitative Requirements

So far, mostly, general purpose drones have been adapted for military use, which are not as rugged/reliable as military grade weapon systems. Military drones should be rugged, all-weather, day/night capable, have low signature, desired altitude ceiling and must include built-in electronic countermeasures.

The General Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR) is the basis of what you get out of a drone. Apart from weight, range, mode of launch, altitude ceiling and ruggedness, it is the payload that matters. The type of camera on the drone will decide its resolution, range and day/night/ thermal detection capabilities. The type of explosive or warhead used will decide the role of the armed drone. For tanks and other armoured vehicles, there is a requirement of a High Explosive Anti Tank (HEAT) warhead. While 20 per cent of drones bought are armed, as per my assessment, none have the HEAT warhead.

Ninety-five percent of the drones bought by the military do not have electronic countermeasure kits. These drones won’t survive or will be rendered ineffective on the modern battlefield. We are already facing this problem in the vicinity of the LAC. There is a requirement for the armed forces to lay down broad GSQR for various categories of drones, allowing flexibility to Commands for area or terrain-specific requirements and low-cost innovations.

Fast-Track Procurement

Currently, all tactical drones are being procured through the special financial powers of Army Commanders and the emergency financial powers of the Vice Chief of the Army Staff (VCOAS). This fast-track method is suitable for quick induction and has been successfully exploited. However, this leads to lack of standardisation, variation in price, increased inventory, expensive maintenance contracts, and exploitation by fly-by-night companies.

It may be prudent to procure long-range tactical and strategic drones, both unarmed and armed, centrally either through the Defence Procurement Procedure or via the VCOAS emergency financial powers. Short range drones and kits for combat innovation can continue to be procured through the special financial powers of Army Commanders by respective Commands. The government’s policy of selecting the lowest bidder at the cost of quality and reliability also needs a review.


In the Army, strategic or operational level drones—Heron, Hermes and the upcoming MQ-9B Sky Guardian—are being operated by the Army Aviation Corps. In the Indian Air Force and the Navy, in all likelihood, there are specialist organisations and personnel operating drones given the strategic and operational nature of the missions. The tactical ones are being operated by dual-tasked soldiers. This ad hoc system is adopted more as a compulsion when the technology differential has to be quickly bridged and during ongoing operations.

Sooner or later, for optimum utilisation and control, specialist subunits and units will need to be created. Ukraine, which has extensively and successfully used drones in battle over the last two years with dual-tasked soldiers, has now created a specialist corps to man the drones at all levels, except perhaps for very short-range drones meant for close combat. Most modern armies have drone subunits at the unit level, and combined arms brigades, division or Integrated Battle Group level, to operate drones at specific ranges. Very short-range combat drones continue to be used almost like a weapon system by dual-tasked soldiers.


Command And Control

All tactical drones are currently operated in a standalone mode by units based on their requirements. Situation awareness and information flow is done through tiered staff channels. There is an urgent need for the Army Information and Decision Support System (AIDSS) with interfaces to subsystems at various levels to be fielded, integrating inputs from all operational and managerial information systems. Currently, this system is a work in progress. Without AIDSS, the full potential of drones cannot be realised. Ideally, a separate subsystem for the tactical handling of drones will also be required.

As more autonomous and intelligent drones come into play, there will be a need to collect visual, acoustic, electronic and thermal signatures of enemy entities. The military also needs terrain and meteorological data of potential battlefields to create Artificial Intelligence algorithms for updating the machines. This requires advanced computers and, so far, no work has been done on this front.

There is far too much overlap in the employment of drones at various levels. There should be a clear-cut demarcation of operational areas of close combat, tactical and operational/strategic level drones. The identification friend or foe (IFF) system has to be standardised between drones, helicopters, and aircraft to avoid fratricide.

Concept of Operations

The current lack of clarity in employment of drones stems from inadequate understanding of the potential and capabilities of the drones and methods of exploitation. Drones are probably the most versatile force multiplier ever seen on the battlefield. They provide 24-hour surveillance, acquire targets, and offer precision kill capability.

The employment of drones must be dovetailed into all operational activity—tactical movement, surveillance/reconnaissance, combined arms fire planning and combat. Mission assignment must be in specific terms. A case in point is the failure to detect Chinese build-up and pre-emptive intrusions in Eastern Ladakh. In Eastern Ladakh, 14 Corps, had Heron drones with a capability to look 100 km across the LAC. The roads, field exercise areas of the PLA, likely concentration areas, and even likely intrusion areas were well known. However, the mission assignment was likely for generic surveillance rather than specific reconnaissance of these areas.

Moreover, why is there no drone overwatch for all tactical/ road movements and operations in Jammu & Kashmir? Why are troops and convoys being ambushed when drone-based thermal sensors can detect even camouflaged terrorists in forest areas?

The military needs to give careful thought to the employment of swarm drones. They can be used for deception, overloading enemy radars or detection devices and force launch of very expensive interception missiles. Even normal drones can be electronically programmed to produce signatures of cruise missiles. Sky is the limit in the field of drones. Army Training Command must produce manuals for employment of drones at various levels.

Counter Drone

Deeper thought needs to be given to counter-drone capabilities. While we have the indigenous capability for both soft and hard kill, the numbers are woefully inadequate. Electronic Warfare units are currently responsible and primarily use electronic counter measures.

Given the threat of drones, there is a need for composite counter-drone systems in large numbers, extending down to frontline units. A grid system is needed to create a multi-layered shield. The concept of interceptor “fighter drones” with hard and soft kill capabilities needs serious consideration. We also need counter-drone capabilities to protect expensive weapons systems and equipment.

There should be no doubt that drones will dominate the battlefield in the foreseeable future to the extent that even the existence of expensive weapon systems is under threat. The Armed Forces have done well to adapt to this technology. However, drones must be enmeshed into all facets of military operations and logistics with a clear concept, practical organisations, and effective command and control.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (Retd) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. This essay reflects his opinions alone