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Drone Systems In South Asia: Current Trends And Implications – OpEd

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Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), remotely piloted aircraft​s​​ or drones in wars and conflicts have added new dynamics to the warfare. These systems gain notoriety after their massive use by Obama Administration during War on Terror. Due to their ISR, striking and loitering capabilities these systems became an attractive commodity for militaries all over the world. Rather than totally changing the face of the warfare this system added ​a new dynamic to the warfare where now ​the life of the soldier is protected; correct intelligence can be collected and surveillance of the adversary became possible during peace and wartime situation​​. Thus, situational awareness of the employer of the drone technology increases significantly manifolds without jeopardizing sacrificing or a single soldier. 

Today utilization of drone technology is being used by not only states but non-state actors because of the element of​ the low cost of these systems. It is not that all of these systems are low in cost, it is just they can be made and accessed in their basic form without spending huge amounts. But these systems are definitely low in cost in comparison to fighter jets, as a huge amount is spent on them and then training of pilots to use these fighter planes. 

According to estimates drones just cost 3% of what a fighter jet would cost and also the strikes carried out by the drones have limited blast zones than a strike carried through fighter jet. Therefore, according to ​the Center for the Study of Drone’s report on Drone Database today 95 countries in the world have active drone inventories, where these states are operating more than 171 types of UAVs, which means that this number of utilization of drones by different has increased by 58%. It is estimated that the drone market will increase from $ 5.6 billion to $ 14 billion annually during this decade. 

Today the types and varieties of drones range from regular highly sophisticated drone systems to kamikaze​-style drones, which are not only utilized by states but also non-state actors. Other than the use of drones by the US, utilization of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict displayed that how vital a role drone system can play. Military strategist all around the world agrees that the utilization of drones by Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict against Armenian forces have opened a new chapter in modern warfare and declared this the “second drone age”

In the case of South Asia, introduction and familiarization with drone technology happened as a consequence of US drone strikes, which gained a lot of negativity for strikes as well because of the violation of air-space, sovereignty, and civilian deaths. But, in recent years for South Asia and specifically Pakistan-India, drone technology is gaining momentum in national security. Both countries are working to acquire or built these systems and have tried to use these systems (quad-copters) along the border. In the year 2020 till the month of June, Pakistan’s army shot down the 8th Indian spy drone. These actions from Indian side were violations of established airspace SoPs between both countries. It reflects that the opposite side is ready to utilize ​​ a certain degree of drone technology along LOC and take​ a​ certain degree of risk. Does this mean that both countries could use bigger or more sophisticated drone technology against each other is the question that arises in this situation? In terms of capabilities both India and Pakistan have sophisticated drone technology. In the case of Pakistan, it first acknowledged that it possesses the drone technology in 2015 by declaring its indigenously developed Burraq UAV, which is also equipped with laser guider air to ground missile.

Other than that Pakistan also have indigenously developed GIDS Shahpar, which is​ a medium altitude and medium endurance, Falco is another drone which is being operated by Pakistan’s Air force and this list also includes ScanEagle, Uqab, Wing Loong 1 and Luna. Pakistan is also working to develop and acquire medium altitude and long endurance drone​s (MALE), recently Pakistan inked a contract with the Turkish Aerospace Industry to produce TAI’s MALE combat drone. Other than these developments, Jane reported that Pakistan also received 4 Cai Hong MALE drones from China. 

In South Asia, India is also developing and procuring many sophisticated UAVs as well as anti-drone systems. Recently India is in process of purchasing 30 MQ-9B predator drones from the US, India also inducted 2 Sea Guardian drones from the US, and India is also in process of acquiring Heron ​​surveillance UAV from Israel. Other these future procurements, India’s current drone inventory comprises of UAVs build be Israel, which are Spylite, Harop, Searcher Mk1, Searcher Mk2, and Heron 1. As far as indigenous development of drones is concerned India’s DRDO is developing Rustom-2 ISR drone. Indian policy circles are also interested in the pursuit of smaller armed drones operating as a swarm, which will be low in cost and can overwhelm the adversary.

Though, Pakistan has ingeniously developed more drones than India and is effectively utilizing them, India has started working in anti-drones technology. Recently at the start of this year, India used combat-armed drone swarms ​​ comprised of 74 kamikaze swarm drones, which autonomously identified its target and attacked it. India also announced that its​ BSF (border security force) has ​an ​anti-drone system capable of identifying and targeting ​a ​single or more than one drone within 10 seconds from a distance. In anti-drone systems, India is also working on electronic jamming systems to track and neutralize the drone systems of ​​adversaries.

These developments reflect that both countries are working towards modernizing their drone fleets. To answer the question that whether both will be able to use these sophisticated systems against each other, other than mentioning the technological prowess of both countries it is also important to note the doctrinal and policy intents of both countries. In recent years, India has continuously exhibited the tendencies to exploit the levels below the nuclear threshold in form of its so-called doctrine of “surgical strike”. But, in all these attempts India was not able to attain any success and in its most recent even has to bear​ the loss of fighter air crafts, helicopters​, and one of the pilots was captured by Pakistan.

So, on this back-drop drones provide a lucrative opportunity to India to use a drone. But, if India is to use the drone against Pakistan, it might use the small low​-cost armed drone, which will definitely raise the risk of war between both states as it will be a violation of Pakistan’s air space. As drones blur, the lines between peace and war, high risk or low risk and political or ethical, India might consider using these smaller UAV systems because of its warmongering policy doctrines and RSS​-driven leadership but the consequences will not be simpler and it will have​ serious​ consequence along the LOC. Moreover, before the ceasefire on LOC Pakistan was continuously shooting down the Indian quad-copters it is time that Pakistan also develop​s​anti-drone systems and deploy them ​along the LOC.  

*Ahyousha Khan, Research Associate, Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad.

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