In 7 September, Pakistan launched for the first time its Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) in a live anti-terrorist operation in the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan against a terrorist compound. The UCAV nicknamed Burraq, equipped with a laser-guided, air-to-surface missile called Barq, successfully struck the terrorist compound killing all three targets – terrorists belonging to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). This operation projected Pakistan into an elite club of just nine nations that possess their own internally developed UCAVs.

At about the same time, the Pakistani Ranger chief, who was in India for talks with his counterpart, Director-General, Border Security Force, met the Home Minister. On being prompted by the Home Minister that they must ensure zero infiltration, Major General Farooq Burki, the Ranger chief, stated that he was a mere DG of a force and not part of the national leadership like the Home Minister. He would convey this message to the authorities in Pakistan.

This diplomatically sugar-coated reply given by the Ranger Chief to the Home Minister clearly indicated that, firstly, infiltration and terrorist strikes would not stop, and secondly, it is only the army and the ISI within Pakistan which could take such a decision. Therefore India should accept this fact and be prepared to deal with the fallout of such incidents.

This thus brought to fore the essential need within the military to create a capability to launch cost-effective cross border air strikes on Pakistan&’s terrorist training camps across the LOC in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, in case it was warranted as retaliation to a terrorist strike. This would need to be done employing UCAVs as a low cost option. This capability enhancement had been the demand of the army and the air force for quite some time, but was not approved by the earlier government. It has now become essential as the present government could be seen to be going back on its policy to strike deep, on similar lines to what it did in Myanmar a few months ago.

Three days after Pakistan launched its UCAV, the Government of India quietly cleared the purchase of ten missile armed drones from Israel for the Indian Air Force, in another government-to-government deal. These are also UCAVs similar to the Pakistan developed Burraq, but possess better performance parameters. They are likely to be delivered within a year. Simultaneously the IAF also announced its plans to commence a separate Unmanned Aerial Vehicle cadre, considering the possible enhanced procurement and employment of UCAVs and UAVs in future conflicts and near conflict scenarios.

The Heron TP Drone, which we have contracted, is far more advanced and also capable of operating at a fairly higher altitude and with a 1000 kg payload. It is comparable to even the US Predator UCAV. India already has a fleet of Harpy, Heron and Searcher UAVs from Israel. The Harpy carries high explosives and is designed to destroy air force radars, while the others are unarmed UAVs.

India&’s own UAV project termed as Rustom 2, being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organization is way behind schedule and may not see the light of day for quite some time. Till the Rustom 2 comes of age, we would have to depend on imports. The US being unwilling to provide the Predator UCAV, India was compelled to purchase from Israel.

Pakistan however was the first to indicate that it already has this capability. The successful launch of the Burraq may have caught our defence planners off guard. Though the development would have been monitored, the actual performance and true level of success achieved may only be known after some time, however, with China backing all such defence developments in Pakistan, it is likely to have had a reasonable level of success. This now gives their army the capability to launch laser-guided, air-to-surface missiles onto our defences, villages close to the border and posts. The major limitation on the efficacy would be the impact of altitude, terrain and payload on the Burraq UCAV.

The latest purchase of the Heron TP would enable India to launch cross-border strikes on known terrorist camps; however, with Pakistan now possessing similar equipment, it would not be a one way ticket. The US has been using UCAVs to destroy militant camps, hideouts and also to target specific militant leaders along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border based on confirmed intelligence. It is the most ideal and low-cost option, with no risk of own human casualties. For a number of years Pakistan has been objecting to the American use of UCAVs, but to no avail. There have been incidents of collateral damage and innocent civilian casualties but it has not halted the conduct of operations.

With both India and Pakistan possessing similar capabilities would the employment of UCAVs against one another become redundant? That should not be so. It would be dependent on which targets they are launched against and in retaliation to which incident. This would make the true difference. India would only employ them in retaliation to a terrorist incident and target only confirmed terrorist camps, not civilian population centres. The system has the ability to also cover Post Strike Damage Assessment (PSDA), which would clearly indicate the nature of target before, during and after the strike.

This procurement now underway by India is for offensive employment and not a deterrent alone. Hence for defence planners, it is essential that the operations directorate of the army and the air force combine to create a designated target list and build this capability into offensive defence strategy. Even before the equipment is inducted, its employment should be merged into the national strategy of cross-border strikes.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.