Sky is not the Limit for the Unmanned Force

More significantly, the next generation of unmanned systems will fly without human intervention and navigate an obstacle-free course in real-time without prior knowledge of either terrain or environment

Issue: 9 / 2020By Joseph NoronhaPhoto(s): By GA-ASI
Indian armed forces have shown interest in Predator B MQ-9B aircraft

Military analysts, artificial intelligence (AI) experts and aviation enthusiasts are likely to keenly follow a unique aerial challenge next year. In July 2021, the United States Air Force (USAF) plans to pit an advanced autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) against a piloted jet fighter. While the precise nature of the contest has not yet been revealed, it could revive memories of other human versus machine clashes like the one between IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer and the then world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Their duel was settled on May 12, 1997, with Deep Blue the victor. Since then, no human being has aspired to beat an AI-endowed supercomputer at chess.

Irrespective of the outcome, next year’s airborne competition managed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) will mark another major milestone in the inexorable rise of intelligent machines in general and unmanned aircraft in particular.


However, the USAF fears that its Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) that have dominated conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and other regions, may be helpless against stronger adversaries. Even the most advanced General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper could be shot out of the skies by the integrated anti-aircraft defences of China or Russia. In fact, unmanned aircraft are turning out to be almost embarrassingly fragile. While 14 UAVs were destroyed mainly in active conflict zones in 2019, this year’s toll is likely to cross 30. And the downed systems belong not just to the US; but to a host of UAV operators. The weapon that accounts for destruction of most of the UAVs, is surface-toair missiles (SAM) sourced mainly from Russia and China.

China is itself a leading developer and producer of UAVs and UCAVs of all types, both commercial and military and is in the forefront of unmanned innovation. Chinese military leaders have long seen UAVs as a low-cost, highly effective means to reduce casualties and obtain desired military effects.

China has been the world’s leading exporter of UCAVs since early 2019 and it won’t be dethroned from that position in a hurry. China’s cheap yet effective systems are growing in popularity even in traditional Western markets. Two popular UCAVs are the Cai Hong “Rainbow” series made by the Chinese Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and the Wing Loong series manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG). They have already left their mark on conflicts across West Asia and North Africa.


Reliable surveillance, preferably round-the-clock, is crucial for any nation that wishes to secure its borders. Opportunistic acts of aggression such as Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure and China’s provocations in Ladakh, could have been forestalled if sensitive points along India’s borders were kept under constant surveillance by a fleet of high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs. Although UAVs often prove vulnerable and defenceless, they are far cheaper to operate on a sustained basis than manned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.

For instance, the MQ-9A Reaper has a flight endurance of 27 hours and operates up to an altitude of 50,000 ft. The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk can remain on station for more than 30 hours at altitudes up to 60,000 ft. The General Atomics MQ-1C Improved Gray Eagle has an endurance of 42 hours at altitudes up to 29,000 ft. India’s armed forces have acquired a fleet of around 200 surveillance UAVs over the last 25 years. These include the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher that can stay aloft for up to 18 hours with a ceiling of 20,000 ft. More capable is the IAI Heron that can remain airborne up to 52 hours with a ceiling of 32,000 ft.


However, it is the UCAVs that are rapidly proliferating and transforming the methodology of warfare across the globe. These platforms range from advanced stealth machines of the USAF that can deliver a variety of lethal weaponry to cheap commercial quadcopter drones modified by insurgents to drop improvised explosive devices (IED).

Loitering munitions are a special type of UCAV pioneered by Israel. These were initially designed as anti-radar kamikaze weapons. However, improved camera and sensor technology renders them suitable to detect and engage any target on the battlefield. The system consists of an explosive warhead mounted on a UAV and deliberately flown into a target like a Precision Guided Munition (PGM). While the IAI Harpy is a largish weapon of wingspan 2.1m, more modern loitering weapons are small enough to be carried and launched by individual soldiers.

UCAVs in particular, are becoming more survivable, more lethally armed and capable of flying faster and higher

The General Atomics next-generation ISR and strike UAV, proposed as replacement for the MQ-9A, is designed to have “ultra-long endurance” and will stay airborne far longer than current UAVs. However, from the operator’s point of view, a single replacement for the MQ-9A’s strike and surveillance mission might be undesirable. It would be preferable to have a mix of systems including advanced stealth UCAVs as well as cheaper UAVs procured from the commercial market and suitably modified for military use.

India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been working on unmanned systems for many years. The DRDO Rustom-II, renamed TAPAS-BH-201, weighs about 1,800 kg, carries a payload of 350 kg and has an endurance of over 24 hours. It was intended as a UCAV, similar to the US Predator. However, following its first flight in November 2016, DRDO decided to develop it purely as a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) surveillance UAV.

In 2018 the Ministry of Defence approved a proposal for the purchase of 10 Heron TP missile-armed UCAVs, but the $400 million deal is yet to be finalised. Meanwhile, the 3,500 crore “Project Cheetah” intended to arm 90 Heron UAVs of the three services with various types of air-to-ground weaponry, is being revived.

Another DRDO system, currently in the project definition stage, is the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) or Ghatak – a tactical UCAV with stealth features for the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy. Built largely of composites, it is expected to be a flying-wing with internal bays for missiles, bombs and other PGMs.


Apart from ever more capable unmanned systems, the most exciting advances are in tactics. In the “loyal wingman” concept, an unmanned aircraft (perhaps a modified Lockheed Martin F-16 or a Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie drone) will fly alongside a Lockheed Martin F-35 jet until the fighter pilot directs the “wingman” to fly ahead and probe enemy defences. The UCAV will also be armed with missiles and bombs that can be delivered on the controlling pilot’s instructions.

The wingman will be a low-cost “attritable” fighter meaning that the platform is intended to be reusable, yet cheap enough to accept its possible loss in combat. While the lone pilot stays out of range and safe, several lethally-armed drones can be sent ahead to engage a variety of lucrative targets and take the fight to the enemy who will find it exceedingly difficult to mount a credible defence. A USAF project named Skyborg is set to explore how a jet pilot or backseat weapons operator might harness AI to effectively control several strike drones. Then there is swarming, in which scores or even hundreds of small drones armed with precision weapons and operating entirely autonomously, can be launched to swamp enemy defences. Or they may simply survey a large area and designate worthwhile targets for a massive wave of attack by fighters, UCAVs or surface-based missiles. Currently, the only hope of an effective system to tackle such a drone swarm is some kind of laser weapon.


The current limitations of UAVs are being addressed rapidly and effectively. UCAVs in particular, are becoming more survivable, more lethally armed and capable of flying faster and higher. Advanced UAVs and UCAVs are increasingly being equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods and even defensive weaponry. And unmanned platforms intended for conflict with adversaries such as Russia and China, will probably have pronounced stealth features.

More significantly, the next generation of unmanned systems will fly without human intervention and navigate an obstaclefree course in real-time without prior knowledge of either terrain or environment. Stealth will make them hard to detect and counter and hence increase their survivability.

All in all, the unmanned force is expected to dominate military aviation for decades to come. Estimates of the unmanned/manned mix of most major air forces just 15 to 20 years from now, exceed 50 per cent in favour of unmanned. The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent shrinking of military budgets, will only accelerate the trend. US business magnate and designer Elon Musk is on record claiming that the “fighter-jet era has passed”. It remains to be seen whether he is right or wrong.