Murphy's Law: Deadly Drone Politics Aids Indian Communists


May 31, 2018: India has been fighting leftist (Maoist) rebels since the 1970s. In the last decade, the Maoists have been losing ground but remain a threat in rural areas of eastern India. The Maoist rebels are a radical wing of the Indian Communist Party which opposes the Maoist violence although not some of the Maoist goals (like reducing corruption). The anti-Maoist campaign is largely a police operation, with little military involvement. The air force has, after years of cajoling, finally provided some helicopters. The military prefers to stay out of any war on internal rebels. This meant that the police were often fighting without the benefit of much aerial reconnaissance or surveillance. India has finally solved this intelligence problem by using commercial satellite photos and commercial UAVs. In experiments with UAVs, it was found that the police could regularly find Maoist bases in rural areas with the satellite photos and have their tactical reconnaissance and surveillance with their UAVs to avoid being ambushed and to guide ground units into position to trap and destroy Maoist units. While the satellite photos can be bought from commercial firms and this has become common worldwide. Getting UAVs was more difficult even though the ones the Indian police wanted were easily available on the international market. Just buying some larger UAVs from the Americans or Israel and the smaller ones from retail stores, that was not possible. That was because it has long been Indian policy to buy locally, even if what you wanted did not exist locally and would take years, or decades, for a government run development program to produce the needed gear.

India has long had problems developing its own military weapons and equipment using government run organizations. The chief culprit here is the DRDO (India's Defense Research and Development Organization) and its latest failure is the Nishant UAV developed (since 1988) for the army and police fighting Maoist rebels. Four were eventually delivered to the army in 2011 and by late 2015 them last of them had crashed. DRDO blames army personnel for losing two of them but the army says all four were lost because Nishant was unreliable and difficult to operate. The soldiers have precedent on their side. After several attempts, Nishant was finally certified as ready for service in 2011. Nishant made its first flight in 2005. Over a dozen were produced, most for development and most of those were lost to accidents as well. In 2013 the government promised the paramilitary police fighting Maoists that they could have sixteen Nishant UAVs as soon as DRDO had completed development and for the Nishant into production. The police are still waiting.

Nishant is a 375 kg (825 pound) aircraft with a cruising speed of 140 kilometers an hour, max range of 160 kilometers and payload of 45 kg (99 pounds). Endurance is 4.5 hours and it is launched via a truck mounted catapult and landed via a parachute. Max altitude is 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). The Indian army paid about $4.5 million for each of the Nishants they bought. They don’t want any more of them. The police are desperate and still willing to buy Nishant.

In contrast, the American RQ-7B Shadow 200 UAVs have flown about a million hours since they were introduced in 2002, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Development of the Shadow 200 began in 1991. Each 159 kg (350 pound) RQ-7B costs $500,000 and the current version can stay in the air six hours per sortie. A day camera and night vision camera is carried on each aircraft. Able to fly as high as 4,800 meters (15,000 feet) or more, the Shadow can thus go into hostile territory and stay high enough (over 3,200 meters/10,000 feet) to be safe from hostile rifle and machine-gun fire. The Shadow UAV can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, is 3.6 meters (eleven feet) long and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers. The army has had great success with the RQ-7B. The army still operates about 400 RQ-7s and about 500 were built and there are many foreign users.

Nishant was not the first failed UAV program for DRDO. In 2008 Indian Air Force received three PTA (Pilotless Target Aircraft) UAVs. PTA had been in development for 27 years, and consumed over $36 million. The air force quickly found PTA unable to perform as promised. Some of the major deficiencies were the inability to operate at the promised 8,600 meter (28,000 foot) altitude. The PTA was barely able to reach 7,200 meters (20,000 feet.) Worse, the PTA could only survive about five landings, not the ten they are supposed to be able to handle. The PTA's usually tow targets for anti-aircraft gunners but also are used (once, of course) as targets for air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles. The biggest problem appears to be with the engine, which has not been able to deliver the promised power and reliability. The Indian Air Force is refusing to accept any more PTAs until the problems are fixed. DRDO made improvements had delivered PTAs to the navy and army and now plans to export it.

DRDO is a network of 51 weapons and technology laboratories, employing over 30,000 people (20 percent scientists and engineers.) DRDO has been screwing up weapons development programs for half a century. Efforts to shape up DRDO have consistently failed. It's all about politics (DRDO provides jobs for well-connected people) and nationalism (India wants to produce its own high tech weapons.) DRDO has failed in almost all areas (small arms, tanks, missiles and warplanes). The failures have grown over the years and created louder calls for reforms.

DRDO has had some successes, which it publicizes as energetically as it can. It tries to play down the failures, or simply tout them as partial successes. But compared to defense industries in other nations, DRDO is an underperformer, and highly resistant to reform.

Meanwhile, the Indian military has been importing affordable and reliable UAVs from Israel. In 2006 India formed its first UAV maritime reconnaissance squadron (the 342nd). The unit has eight Israeli Searcher II UAVs and four Israeli Herons. The Searcher II can stay aloft for 16 hours at a time and is built to operate for 2,000 hours before a major system failure. The Heron is similar to the U.S. Predator and can stay up for fifty hours at a time. The radar and vidcam sensors enable the UAVs to provide unprecedented coverage on short notice. Israel is also using a version of the Heron for maritime reconnaissance. Israel has been the leader in UAV technology since the 1980s and began supplying India with UAVs in 2003. For a few years, the paramilitary police fighting the Maoists had access to one Israeli made UAV (belonging to a government research organization). That was helpful but that one UAV was insufficient to cover the vast rural areas of eastern India the Maoists operated in. That one UAV did demonstrate how useful more UAVs could be but the military was not willing to provide UAVs for the police.

The limited access to UAVs did make it clear to the Indian police that they could have avoided hundreds of police casualties if they had UAVs back in 2010 when they began their major operations against the Maoists. But it was career suicide for police commanders to make a lot of noise in the media about that.

Meanwhile, the UAV shortage problem became more obvious after 2015 when India responded to the slow progress of the police against the Maoists, and especially growing police casualties (mainly from ambushes) by increasing (with 17 new battalions) its para-military CRPF for operations in Kashmir and eastern India. The CRPF is the principal national police organization dealing with terrorists and rebels. Founded in 1939, and retained when India became independent in 1947 by 2010 the CRPF had nearly 200,000 personnel. It deployed over 70 battalions of para-military police back then, including seven “rapid action” battalions that can be quickly sent to any part of the country to deal with outbreaks of violence.

The CRPF has been heavily involved in fighting Maoists since 2010. The 2015 CRPF expansion had 12 if the 17 new battalions (of about 1,100 men each) going to eastern India for use against Maoist rebels. But the new CRPF units in Kashmir (often containing veterans of anti-Maoist operations) noted that the forces in Kashmir had access to a lot more UAVs. This was because of the war their involved foreign troops (from Pakistan). The military had been able to obtain foreign made UAVs and the CRPF units benefitted from that. CRPF commanders and NCOs in Kashmir told their fellow CRPF in eastern India what a marvelous thing UAVs were and how regular access to them reduced CRPF casualties and made life much more difficult for the enemy.

Meanwhile just having regular access to satellite photos made it possible to go after Maoist groups in thinly populated rural areas. But the Maoists had long taken advantage bases in rural areas, where the forests provided lots of cover, except in the dry season when most of the trees shed their leaves. With the wide availability of commercial satellite photos, the CRPF were able to find the Maoist bases. When police commercial UAVs they could advance into these rural areas and avoid ambushes while keeping track of Maoist movements.

There remained a problem with the government research and procurement bureaucracies’ inability to provide enough of these UAVs and refusal to permit the use of commercial UAVs that can be bought for under a thousand dollars each. These are often used by terrorist and criminal organizations but the Maoists have not been able to afford many, if any, of them. Thus the Maoists continue to inflict heavy (and embarrassing) casualties on the CRPF via ambushes that would be less likely if the CRPF had cheap (under a thousand dollars each) quad-copter UAVs.


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