Drones in Defence

Unmanned aerial vehicles have emerged as game-changers, performing multiple functions such as long-distance surveillance, reconnaissance, search and rescue, and precise attacks. However, as military directives encourage the acquisition of advanced UAV platforms, ethical and legal concerns surrounding their use necessitate delicate balancing

By Jalaj Shah and Chirayu Sharma


The synergy created from the integration of technology with manufacturing is taking unmanned distance combat to new realms that were never envisioned. In the aerospace industry, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly capable of carving out their own niche even as fifth-generation aircraft like the F/A-22, the F-35, and the Sukhoi PAK-FA become operational. The implications of UAVs extend to both near and long-term implications for India’s defence procurement, training, and self-protection strategy. While there are undoubtedly numerous obstacles, there are also limitless possibilities.

Understanding UAVs

A UAV is a type of aircraft that does not have a human pilot or passengers on board. UAVs, sometimes known as “drones,” can be fully or partially autonomous, but are typically operated by a human pilot from a remote location. They are utilized for multiple purposes, including strategic and operational reconnaissance and combat monitoring.

The military requires significantly more precise and accurate drones, which increases their cost. This requires sophisticated algorithms and robust sensors capable of detecting their surroundings and carrying out the assigned task. Military drones, as opposed to other drones that employ pre-built flight control solutions, require solutions that are custom-built by experts in the field.

The military drone comes in three different categories based on their engineering build. The fixed-wing drone is the fastest UAV, deployed to take off and land similar to an airplane. These drones are used for long-distance surveillance, reconnaissance, and unmanned attacks. A single rotor can carry more payloads and cover greater distances than the fixed wing. It is efficient as it can run on gasoline too apart from batteries. The multi-copter drone is used for aerial surveillance and photography.

Impact on Defence Strategy

The military drone industry is estimated to be worth over $11 billion by 2023. Drones have revolutionised intelligence gathering by using high-resolution cameras and sensors to collect data and images from a distance.

Drones enhance military operations with a level of accuracy unmatched by traditional methods. They play a crucial role in target identification.

Additionally, some drones are equipped with the capability to make mid-air adjustments to their trajectories, enabling them to deliver strikes with exceptional precision. Drones also utilise radio frequency sensors that can detect enemy drones, flight paths, and locations.

Drones are already changing the way wars are fought, empowering nations to execute precise assaults while minimising potential harm to on-ground military personnel. The implementation of drone technology may potentially mitigate the necessity for expensive recruitment and training initiatives by enabling armed forces to execute missions with reduced personnel.

Fully Autonomous Drone Swarms (AFADS) have been reported to have the ability to lock onto targets as minuscule as one human into their Artificial Intelligence (AI) system. Defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin has developed Hellfire missiles, which are precision-guided munitions. These missiles can be launched from AFADS, leading to significant damage around the target. According to a WION news report, a non-explosive version of Hellfire – the R9X – deploys a series of knife-like blades from its arsenal and does not cause any significant damage to anyone around the locked target.

Reconnaissance and Search and Rescue (SAR)

Reconnaissance is the military survey of a region to locate enemy locations and ascertain strategic features. Search and Rescue (SAR) drone missions are diverse and can be identified based on the type of terrain and special circumstances. High-altitude drones fitted with advanced thermal imaging, DCT (digital communication tools), and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) can be used to effectively speed up search and rescue. The advantages of drone utilisation in SAR include enhanced situational awareness, communication, illumination, and precise reach in conflict-ridden terrains such as Ukraine and Gaza.

Strategic Implications for India

The strategic impact of such technology in India lies in the use of such drones in densely populated areas of Jammu & Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, where the threat of terrorists and Naxals is prevalent. This AI-guided non-explosive payload on a UAV can help root out targeted terrorists hiding among civilian establishments without causing collateral damage to innocent civilian life and property.

The terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 posed a new problem of force protection once a frontier of the target location is acquired by the defence forces. Military casualties and the human cost of conflict act as deterrents in public opinion for supporting higher expenditure in the defence sector by democratic governments. Combat UAVs offer a solution by increasing the accuracy of hitting the target, confirming its precise location, reducing the risk to the lives of civilians, and protecting military personnel from harm by providing vital real-time intelligence on-field.

Recent directives from Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan mandate the completion of two studies concerning key military platforms utilised by all three services. These platforms are UAVs and armoured helicopters, according to defence sources quoted by Dinakar Peri (The Hindu, October 16, 2023). Subsequent to the conclusion of the UAV study, it has been suggested that 31 MQ-9B High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs and 155 Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs be acquired.

Challenges in Drone Deployment

Despite the potential benefits of using small-size drones for border patrol, there are some challenges to overcome before they are fully adopted for border surveillance systems. One of these issues includes drone battery limitations and its burdensome recharging process. Most small-size drones in the market currently have flight limitations capped at about half an hour, requiring a frequent swap or recharge of the drone battery in the middle of the surveillance mission.

There exist some approaches to addressing the battery limitation issue including using fuel cell battery systems and solar power to recharge the drone’s battery.

Economic, Ethical and Legal Concerns

The high price tag associated with drones poses a challenge in assessing the economic viability of their operation. Moreover, drones may be susceptible to cyberattacks, potentially compromising critical information and resources.

There is concern among certain experts that the heightened dependence on drones might exert an adverse impact on the economy. Military expenditures might decline if there were fewer personnel on the ground; consequently, wages and employment prospects for soldiers and other personnel might be diminished. Due to this, legislative and military leaders must carefully contemplate the potential economic ramifications of the technology prior to endorsing its extensive implementation.

One of the main ethical concerns is the potential for civilian casualties. Despite the precision of drone technology, there is still a risk of unintended harm to civilians. Reports have shown that US drone strikes have resulted in a significant number of civilian deaths in various countries. Privacy concerns arise as drones equipped with high-resolution cameras and sensors can invade individuals’ privacy rights, especially when used for surveillance purposes.

The legal and regulatory frameworks around drone use have not caught up with the technology’s rapid advancement, leaving a lack of clarity on privacy protection. In terms of international law, the use of military drones raises legal concerns. Their use is governed by general rules of international law, but the identification of the applicable legal framework can be contested. The use of drones in areas without UN sanction or deployed US forces raises questions about their legality under international law. To address these concerns, legal frameworks, norms, and public discourse are necessary to balance the benefits of drones with ethical considerations and legal obligations.

-The writers are studying at the Institute of Management, Nirma University. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda