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Drone Swarms Threat - much catching up required

December 19, 2018 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), which is a statutory body of Government of India, disclosed through a communication on November 9, 2018 that the Indian Air Force (IAF) had announced a Rs 100 crore Swarm Drone Competition. The contest titled ‘Mehar Baba Swarm Drone Competition’ named after World War ll Air Force pilot Air Commodore Mehar Singh DSO, MVC, was actually launched on October 8, 2018 - Air Force Day. The contest is open to all Indians, including for students in all educational institutions across India. The winners could bag a defence contract for swarm drones worth up to Rs 100 crore. The AICTE communication states that the IAF intends to reimburse upto Rs.10 crores on R&D funds, award the winner/s a prize of Rs.10 Lakhs and follow it up with an initial co-production order with the IAF's Base Repair Depot (BRD) of upto Rs.100 crore.

The IAF is looking at applications of the swarm to deliver relief supplies in disaster-hit regions, especially in remote and far-flung areas, with a single operator in a portable ground control unit to be able to control up to 50 drones that can fly 100 km carrying a payload of one kg and spend up to an hour on the target. Entries were required to reach the IAF by November 28, 2018 for the completion that is being organised in three phases as follows: Phase 1 - decision on presentations by chosen entries 16 December 2018; Phase 2 - 10 drones will have to fly 10 km, at an altitude of 3,300 ft with GPS, and; Phase 3 - 50 drones will have to fly as a swarm for 50 km to and fro, with and without GPS. IAF will reimburse development cost of developers up to Rs 25 lakh for Phase 1 and Rs 10 crore for phase 2. Top three winners will get Rs 10 lakh as prize, followed by a co-production opportunity with a Base Repair Depot. The winners will be announced on Kargil Vijay Diwas on 26 Jury 2019.

The Mehar Baba Swarm Drone Competition is an excellent initiative by the IAF, which should have been taken a decade back by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) rather than relying on the DRDO crawling along its drone programme without even a thought to the swarm concept. It is all the more significant with terrorist organisations like the Islamic State using drone swarms for surveillance, monitoring and dropping grenades to inflict casualties on adversaries in Iraq Syria. In August 2018, Russia reported increase in swarm drone attacks on its military base in Syria. A British observatory reported 13 assaults in July and five in August on the Russian base, out of a total of 23 since January 2018. These drones are loaded with explosives. But more than the Middle East, which may be of little concern to our policy makers, developments in China next door, with her massive drone production capability and technological advancements, should have got their antennas up years back. While India is engaged in competing for taller and still taller statues, China is competing for world record in swarm drones. In December 2017, China set its own record at Guangzhou; demonstrating 1,108 drones operating together and performing variety of tasks. This record was overtaken by the technical giant, Intel, by launching a swarm of 1200 drones during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 held in South Korea during February 2018. But China overtook that record soon by flying a swarm of 1374 drones during Labour Day celebrations at Xian on May 1, 2018. More significantly, China displayed a ‘military’ drone swarm of 119 drones in August 2017, breaking the US record of 103 drones in the same year. The drone swarms threat of PLA has been discussed in these columns earlier. PLA envisages using drone swarms even against US fighter jets, naval vessels and even aircraft carriers. China also successfully carried out tests in 2017 for launching drones using electromagnetic pulse (EMP), wherein the drones reached speeds of 100 km/hr within few moments of launch and autonomously adjusted their trajectory and their altitudes as they streamed towards the target.

On balance, China’s swarm technology has enormous potential and one can rest assured China will pass on such technology to Pakistan. Multiple targets can be attacked on land, sea and air including pulverizing defences at our borders. This is in addition to drone swarm threat by terrorist organisations; non-state or state-sponsored. We need to develop matching capabilities - both offensive and defensive. India' first private sector unit for manufacturing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), built by the Adani Group and Israel-based Elbit Systems, to develop Hermes 900 and Hermes 480 medium altitude long-endurance UAVs for the Indian and global market has already opened in Hyderabad in December 2018. But we must also focus on drone swarms of smaller variety as discussed above. Much catching up is required.