This month, China’s state media publicised its decision to supply 50 Wing Loong II armed drones to Pakistan, which it prophesied, would be a nightmare for Indian ground formations in high-altitude areas as India’s military does not have the ability to respond to the new-age stand-off weapons.
Arguing that armed Chinese and Turkish drones had played a crucial role in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan conflicts by decimating the enemy defences and conventional armour, the Chinese media said Indian ground formations would be unable to parry an attack by a large number of armed drones.
While the Chinese emphasis on the success of Wing Loong II in African and Asian theatre is a matter to be noted, Indian military officials point out that the armed drones perform optimally in uncontested air spaces or where it has air dominance. Like in Afghanistan and Iraq where the United States drones have been used to carry out strikes against insurgents or terrorists because the US was dominating the air space.
This isn’t going to be the case with China or Pakistan’s border with India.
“Whether it is Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir or the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, the airspace is very closely monitored by radars and hotly contested with fighters. The armed drones will simply be shot down if they cross the lines,” said a former Indian Air Force chief.
But Pakistan’s acquisition of the armed drones from China does underscore the need for India to acquire weaponised drones and anti-drone systems since the unmanned aerial vehicles can be used to launch air-to-ground weapons without crossing the LoC or LAC. The drones can discharge the weapons beyond the engagement envelopes of the Indian guns or surface-to-air missiles on the ground.
As of now, India does not have any armed drone system.
The navy is acquiring two US Predators on lease for maritime domain awareness for friend or foe identification. And the Israeli weaponisation upgrade of the Heron drone will take time.
India had accepted the necessity for the armed forces to have Close-in weapon systems in 2015 and floated the tender for the system that detects and destroys incoming missiles or enemy aircraft three years later. The Russian S-400 system, which made the cut, is expected to be available next year.
The defence public sector company Bharat Electronics, meanwhile, has come up with an anti-drone radar-based system but it is still to be validated by the users.
While it suits the Chinese media and military to compare the Indian army with Armenian, Syrian or Government of National Accord (GNA) forces in the Africa-Asian theatre for its psychological warfare, the Bharat Electronics-manufactured medium-powered radar detects even birds in flight. Besides, it is cost-effective to shoot down an infiltrating drone by using L-70 or ZU-23 air defence guns.
After all, a Chinese Wing Loong II drone is one-tenth the cost of a fighter and it does not make sense to shoot them down using million-dollar US air-to-air missiles.
To ensure that the troops are protected from stand-off weapons, the Indian Army is using tunnel defences with huge concrete Hume pipes to provide the defence in case of the first strike on the front-line. But a lucky strike from an enemy drone can unravel the best of defence plans without a properly integrated air defence network in place.