New Era of RPVs UMAs & Drones (Replugged)

"It is apparent that after this piece was published over three decades back, neither the DRDO, MoD or Service HQs took any notice of it or did anything about it. Otherwise, by now we would have progressed much in this field and not lagged behind as at present."

New Era of RPVs UMAs & Drones (Replugged)

Editor's Note

Nearly 30 years ago, various countries in the West were debating on  finalizing the concept of use of Drones, RPVs and UMAs. It was three decades ago when Maj Gen. VK Madhok (Retd), after necessary research, wrote this well articulated piece that was published by The Sunday Statesman, Delhi on July 29,1990.

It is apparent that after this piece was published over three decades back, neither the DRDO, MoD or Service HQs took any notice of it  or did anything about it. Otherwise, by now we would have progressed much in this field and not lagged behind as at present.

Notwithstanding, this article remains valid and relevant today and should be read by all concerned, especially in the defence forces to grasp its technicalities and comprehend what was intended by the author three decades ago in the interest of the country and its armed forces.

The article has now been forwarded by the author to the Defence Minister with a letter for due consideration and favorable disposal.

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Technology has more or less brought us to an era of; intelligent; target-seeking ammunition which will navigate, seek, identify and then, on their own, engage hostile airborne and ground targets. The USA's  Sadarm (seek and destroy armour) is a typical example.

The concept of UMA (unmanned aircraft) is the logical and expanded version of this technology. Drones, RPVs (remote pilotless vehicles) and, ultimately, UMAs (larger RPVs or aircraft) will become the chief components of tomorrow's unmanned air forces.

In addition, new sensor technologies. and attack systems have hastened the process of developing combat robots in no man's land — where men will control them well away from the front line. In fact, it would be hard to picture the future battlefield without them.

The U.S. Defence Department awaits a comprehensive RPV master plan for the forthcoming decades. With their growing importance, counter-measures (electronic and physical) are also under development, such as by Britain's Aerospace in the shape of a proximity fuse on their Rapier missile to deal with the RPV threat.

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The idea of using unmanned aerial vehicles is not entirely a new one. A French scholar developed an aerial balloon in 1818 that could launch rockets by a delayed fuse. As far back as 1890, the U.S. army experimented with the idea of unmanned aerial reconnaissance with a camera attached to a kite.

Drones were used in World War I, and have been regularly used as targets for artillery guns. Japan's self defense forces are now experimenting with the latest target drone as a battlefield reconnaissance RPV.

The use of mini-RPVs by Israel against Lebanon in 1982 showed  their potential and caught the West's imagination. The Israelis proved that RPVs. could be used at the tactical level in the battlefield. Since then, RPVs have been thought of as the new wave of the future.

So effective was surveillance, the primary purpose for which these were used, that Israeli teams engaged in operating RPVs from tennis courts could actually see Lebanese vehicles in markets and streets on their TV screen.

Needless to say, information about terrain and targets was most useful to the Israeli field commanders, and their gunners. As a logical step, the US Navy is planning to go in for an air force of "Pioneer" RRVs for ocean surveillance.

With experience and increasing concern for the safety of manned and expensive aircraft, the prospects of military UMAs improved considerably in the eighties .Canada is experimenting with its “Sentinel” CL 227 RRV.

Its battlefield applications include attack warning, jamming, electronic intelligence and target acquisition. An additional reason for enlarging these projects in the nineties is that with higher education standards and job opportunities, sufficient numbers of men might not come forward to take up full-time service careers.

RPVs have been used on missions to destroy the Vietcong’s heavily barricaded surface-to-air missile sites. Future mission objectives will include close air combat, short-range ship board missions and deep penetration operations behind the enemy lines.

With advanced technology, RPVs are being designed to carry payloads for surveillance. (TV cameras, infra-red imagers, Sensors), equipment for electronic counter-measures (radar, jammers, flares or chaff) or strictly for employment as weapon platforms, (under-wing missiles with warheads).

Also, the RPV will not only be sending real-time TV pictures during its mission, but also send them directly to the battalion or company commander — a task which the manned air forces are not in a position to undertake now.

This could ultimately lead to a strike RPV before the end of this decade, which would not only be in a position to locate enemy radar, airfields, head quarters, and then relay back. information, but would also be in a position to perform an attack mission by itself. Although tested as a surveillance system so far, RPVs have yet to be tested as a weapon  system in combat.

Today a number of countries are engaged in RPV development projects, prominent among them being the USA, Britain, Italy, France, Canada and Argentina. (No reliable information is available about the Soviet Union.  

After the "Seek-Spinner" programme, the USA is now busy on "Tacit-Rainbow", an anti-radar defence, suppression RPV, which loiters around when hostile radar is switched off in the battlefield and strikes it as soon as the radar is switched on.

For all their virtues, some aspects continue to be debated, such as whether an RPV will be able to stand, and fight alone? Would it complement an air force? Also, there are reservations concerning the safety of an RPV.

What would happen if it crashed into a populated area, or cannot tell friend from foe? Most importantly, once an enemy target has been identified, an UMA would still be required to navigate to it.

On the other hand, many positive aspects cannot be overlooked.  These machines could replace human beings, particularly in expensive air missions.  Also, UMAs are well within the scope of industrialization.

The consensus is that there is no reason for despair and it is only a question of time before solutions are found. In addition, development in artificial intelligence promises to provide a wide spectrum of possibilities for tactical applications for the “flying automats”.

Continued improvement in anti-aircraft guns, their precision and the resultant threat to manned aircraft is another reason for speeding up development.  We may see a break-through in the coming decades when RPGVs will be in a position to take on a number of missions currently being performed by manned aircraft.

Further, with the emerging tactical doctrines of deep penetration into enemy territory, emphasizing attacking the second or third layers of an enemy’s RPVs as UMAs acquire special significance.

UMAs will provide close reconnaissance, perform spotting functions for missile or long-range artillery guns, destroy targets; jam enemy’s electronic equipment, act as radio-relay stations and provide real-time intelligence. Also, by penetrating enemy territory, they will alert hostile electronic systems, assisting in their early detection.

UMAs are, therefore, about to become an invaluable tool for deep attack on the enemy’s rear broadcasting real-time information and complete surveillance over the battlefield, RPVs are cheaper, their airframe is the least demanding and they are safe. Very little metal is used except in the engine portion of an RPV. It is difficult to detect with radar or infra-red devices.

Currently three types of UMAs are being thought of.  A mini RPV which is already in use; a mid RPV with a range up to 300 miles or so and in due course, a Theatre-RPV which is programmed for the early nineties by various countries.

But an RPV’s range can be extended up to 500 miles. It may weigh anything between 15 to 160 lb. Efforts are afoot to make an RPV which can stay aloft for at least a year with solar-charged batteries.

As regards launching, Britain is busy with RPVs which can be launched from jet-assisted take-off rockets, from a launcher or smooth surface and which can be recovered with a net, or just skidlanded. Aerospace giants in the Western countries as well as small firms are working on RPVs projects.

The requirement of RPVs for the three services need not necessarily be identical.  The navy may need a mid-RPV with a range of 200-300 miles, with the ability to identify targets and transmit real-time information.  

Due to the difficulty of recovering an RPV on deck, it would be necessary to have a sea recoverable RPV. Besides being watertight, it would have to be impervious to saline water. An army’s needs may, however, be different.

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At present, reconnaissance lacks a primary tool.  If manned aircraft are to be safer, they must be deployed at considerable distance from the combat zone. But by doing so, they would lose range, while the UMAs can be deployed considerably close to the battle area. Their loss is less serious than that of a manned reconnaissance aircraft.

RPV technology is catching on and will soon, it appears, attract other countries. It may not be wrong to say that the coming decades will be an era of unmanned air forces with drones, RPVs and UMAs, taking another step towards “push-button warfare”.

Although deep penetration of the type visualized by NATO sources - hundreds of miles inside an enemy’s territory - may not be relevant in South Asia there is considerable scope for their employment, particularly in mountainous regions where one has to be very lucky to get any information from the other side of the hill, RPVs could play an effective part here.

Further, high technology is not needed to produce RPVs only for the equipment inside. The ultimate UMA could be a sensor, a roving weapon platform, an armed intruder, a scout, a spy or merely a transmitter. A new and challenging tool of warfare.

About the Auhtor

Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: [email protected]

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