The demand for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is growing all over the world. However, because of the fact that such vehicles can be put to lots of uses – surveillance, border patrol, intelligence gathering, attacks on selected targets – the demand is specially high in South and Central Asia. It has been calculated that in South and Central Asia alone, the UAV market for border protection will grow around 25 per cent or more in the years 2010-2015. According to Teal Group, which is an aerospace consultancy, the global spending on unmanned aircrafts will near $55 billion in the next decade. This growth constitutes demand for air, maritime and space unmanned vehicle systems.
There are also confirmed reports of the presence of an unmanned, high-altitude stealth jet drone at the US air base of Bagram, Afghanistan. The RQ-170 Sentinel was manufactured by Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Program and has reportedly been deployed for increased intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for combatant commanders in Afghanistan. The media has further noted its ability to fly over the borders of Iran, China, India and Pakistan for collecting “useful data about missile tests, telemetry, signals and multi-spectral intelligence.” Speculations are rife that the drone, widely known as “The Beast of Kandahar,” is being used for the spying missions in Pakistan and Iran, related most probably to the nuclear programs of these two countries.
The United States is using the Predator UAV successfully against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), effectively killing most of their top leaders. While the Pakistani government openly opposes the use of such methods, observers say that it does not dispute the fact that CIA’s Predator operations in the Pakistani tribal belt have been largely successful. Also, to a large extent, they have supported Pakistan’s own military operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan that involve the use of ground troops and the air force.
Meanwhile, the first ever US Air Force unmanned robotic spacecraft, X-37B was launched on April 22 from Florida. Some space experts are calling this new drone as representing the arrival of the “weaponization” or militarization” of space. Other military experts explain that the X-37B is the first unmanned space craft capable of conducting combat missions in space.
Impressed by the performance of US drones against al Qaeda and Taliban, India also wants to deploy drones against Kashmiri Jihadist while Russia might want to use it against Chechens. Israel has also several uses for such technology particularly against Hamas and Hizbollah. Overall, both the Pakistani and Indian militaries are seeking UAVs in large numbers. They are either buying them outright from abroad, developing them on their own or seeking partners for co-development. The versatility and cost effectiveness of UAVs makes them attractive to both militaries. With tensions no better between the neighbors, it is no wonder that the future of UAVs in South and Central Asia is a curve that is set to continually rise.
The Israelis remain the main suppliers of UAVs to India, selling IAI’s Searcher and Heron UAVs. Another Israeli company, Elbit Systems, is trying to sell Hermes 450, Hermes 900, Skylark I and II UAVs to the Indian military. Additionally the Indian Air Force is seeking the armed Israeli UAV named Harop.
During Aero India 2009 in Bangalore, India’s DRDO put on display the Rustom UAV. The agency is using a design from its light combat aircraft Tejas to build UAVs. The Indian Nishant UAV is used by the Indian Army on the plains of Rajasthan however it cannot climb more than 10,000 feet, so therefore, it cannot be used in high altitude conflicts such as Kargil or Siachen.
Furthermore, the Indian Ministry of Defense wants to procure a number of High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs for the three military services. According to the specifications it has issued, the UAVs should have minimum ceiling altitude of 35,000-feet, 24-hour endurance, 250-km direct line-of-sight data link, etc.
In addition, one Maharashtra based Indian firm will deploy drones to inspect and detect problems with power transmission lines.
In June 2002, Pakistan shot down an Israeli-built Searcher Mark-II, which was on an Indian Air Force mission. Addtionally, the Indians used Israeli UAVs during the Kargil conflict. There have been reports that the Indians may now also use UAVs against the Maoists, who recently killed 75 Indian paramilitary troops in Chhattisgarh state. It will be the first time that UAVs will be used by the Indians in low intensity conflict zones.
Meanwhile, several Pakistani companies are involved in UAV production. One Pakistani firm has made a unique hand-launched mini-rocket UAV, called Firefly. It is a high-speed and a short-range observation system that costs around US$3,000. Another UAV made by the same firm is called Desert Hawk, which has an endurance of two hours. In 2008, Pakistan built the Uqaab UAV, which was launched with much fanfare and initiating ceremony was attended by Chief of the Army Staff.
Pakistan is also acquiring two types of UAVs from Europe. These are the German EMT LUNA short-range battlefield reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition UAV and the Italian Galileo Avionica’s Falco tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (TUAV). At the same time Turkey and Pakistan are also working together on development of UAVs.
While Pakistan has sought Predators from Washington, the Obama administration has offered Islamabad unarmed Shadow UAVs for intelligence-gathering purposes. American apprehension perhaps arises from the fact that the technology could make its way to China. However, Pakistan continues to build its case for acquiring armed drones such as Predator and Reaper produced by General Atomics. It wants to eliminate the controversy surrounding the drone attacks taking place in FATA, which have lately been confined to Waziristan area. The country will most likely use US satellites for operating these drones if they get them, as it is unclear if the country posses the requisite space infrastructure. On the other hand, US made drones in Pakistani stockpile makes the Indian nervous as they believe these will eventually be used against them. India is therefore working hard to convince the US Congress and prevent selling of such weapons to Pakistan.
Armed drones have proven to be an effective weapon and tactics against non-state actors involved in asymmetric type warfare. Conventional weapons are largely ineffective against extremist groups, where using them often risk high civilian causalities and possible media exploitation at the hands of terrorists. However, there is a limit to the effectiveness of low flying armed drones when it comes to their use against state actors as they can easily be eliminated by weapons in possession of any moderately capable military. On the other hand, drone such as unarmed Global Hawk which can fly at 60,000 feet for more than 32 hours is a different beast.
The drone race for armed drone of the kinds being used in the AfPak region cannot be understood without comprehending the essential infrastructure it depends on. The drones are integrated with satellite systems to be operational, while being connected to the ground control stations. If these satellites are threatened, the drone technology as well as all other systems and weapons that depend on the global positioning systems become vulnerable.
China particularly is aggressively pursuing the space dual use program, which supposedly has the capacity to counter the space infrastructure of global positioning and targeting systems. In January 2007, China tested its ground based laser ASAT capabilities by shooting down one of its aging weather satellites in space; in September 2008, it launched the BX-1 satellite, deployed through the Shenzou-7 spacecraft. Later the BX-1 satellite and the Shenzou-7 performed a fly-by of the International Space Station (ISS). Furthermore, it was reported that the test proved that the Chinese military can threaten the imaging reconnaissance satellites operated by the U. S., Japan, Russia, Israel and Europe. This had prompted the United States to launch its first National Space Policy after a hiatus of ten years, and now the launching of the first ever space drone, X-37b. Space is the final frontier for whoever wants to dominate the land, sea and air on earth.
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