Where are you, b*?” an Armenian soldier shouts as fellow compatriots look up at the sky and fire randomly. Seconds later, a drone strikes a nearby bus.

The video of this incident, available on Twitter, gives us an insight into the new age of warfare where human beings are trying to fight off machines that can easily track them from the sky and rain down on them, bringing along complete destruction.

The spectacular and crushing defeat of Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is a good lesson for all countries, especially India, which is focussing on revamping and modernising its military.

The war was singularly won through the use of drones and loitering munitions, procured from Turkey and Israel, which managed to hunt down tanks, armoured personnel carriers, trenches of soldiers, radars and everything that moved on the ground. The air defence system of Armenia and soldiers with assault rifles were no challenge to the drones that seemed to come in with ease and strike.

Era of drones
In the early 1990s’ war, interestingly, it was Armenia that got the better of Azerbaijan with its modern and well-equipped military.

But then things changed. Azerbaijan invested in new technology and has won the battle decisively. However, only time will tell whether the drones will make tanks redundant, just like the use of gunpowder by Babur eventually made elephants irrelevant in war.

Mike Eckel writes in RFE/RL, “Drones are being used to a far greater extent than ever before, helping to shape the battlefield, offering a glimpse of how future wars are likely to be fought….”

And as The Washington Post noted, “The Nagorno-Karabakh has become perhaps the most powerful example of how small and relatively inexpensive attack drones can change the dimensions of conflicts once dominated by ground battles and traditional air power.”

“It also highlighted the vulnerabilities of even sophisticated weapons systems, tanks, radars and surface-to-air missiles without specific drone defenses. And it has raised debate on whether the era of the traditional tank could be coming to an end,” it said.

In between Pakistan and China
India is going through a massive modernisation process and it is important that the country takes lessons from the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and focuses on niche and punitive technology.

The Indian military has always relied on numerical strength rather than pure technological prowess.

The best period for our military was the late 1970s and the 1980s. That is when the military really got state-of-the-art technology and firepower, not in piecemeal deals as is being done right now but in large quantities. Be it the Mirage 2000 jets, which carried out the Balakot strikes last year, or the MiG-29 fighter carrying out combat air patrol in Ladakh, or the T-72 tanks standing tall before the Chinese, all these systems were procured in that period. Not to forget the Bofors gun that won India the Kargil battle and still excellently performs its task, be it against Pakistan or in Ladakh.

India should work out a clear national security doctrine and take into account the kind of warfare that the enemy is likely to wage. We should not just focus on and pump money into systems that will prove to be sitting ducks or useless in future wars.

While drone warfare may have been successful in the Armenian context, it may not be the same in an India-Pakistan scenario where both sides have deployed heavy air defence systems. For drones to be successful, the country operating them needs to have complete air dominance, something that the Indian Air Force (IAF) or the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) may not be able to sustain over an extended duration.

But what if a swarm of drones is launched from multiple locations? Would India and Pakistan be able to stave off such an attack?

The scare of the drone is such that the IAF air defence operators on the ground in Srinagar on 27 February 2019 had mistaken an incoming Mi17 VH chopper to be an enemy drone, resulting in a deadly ‘friendly fire’ incident.

In the immediate neighbourhood of India, China is the big player when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Not only has it invested a lot of effort in developing drones, including armed ones, but it has also focussed on anti-drone technology too.

According to an Asia Times report, “State-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has developed a counter-drone system consisting of multiple weapons and equipment, including land-based rockets and drone-hunting drones that can shoot huge webs and vehicle-based detection devices.”

The Global Times says, “China also has rifle-shaped counter-drone devices, which ‘shoot’ jamming signals that will disrupt drones, bringing about either a forced landing or diverting an intruding drone.”

A look at India’s own UAV capability reveals a rather sorry state of affairs.

Time to be tech-ahead
It is a shocker that even when China is breathing down our neck, Indian soldiers on the ground don’t have enough reconnaissance and surveillance capability.

The 14 Corps, which looks after the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China in the northern sector, is looking at procuring at least 10 to 15 long-range Heron UAVs and 20-25 multi-copters for close-range surveillance.

What India has in its inventory is a small range of surveillance drones and loitering munition.

Last year, the Army went in for about 600 SpyLite mini-UAV for high-altitude aerial surveillance. It is built by Cyient Solutions & Systems (CSS), a joint venture between Israel’s BlueBird Aero Systems and Cyient Ltd of India. The Army also has the Harop loitering munition, procured in the late 1990s from Israel, besides Searcher Mk 11 and Heron, both from Israel.

India is also exploring the possibility of acquiring a number of GA-ASI MQ-9 Reapers from the United States.

India should focus on investing bigger on indigenous drone technology rather than ending up buying expensive armed drones from abroad, numbers of which will be too less to give any capability prowess over the enemy in a war.

It’s time India thinks of technology, and not just manpower, to counter the enemy in a battlefield.