Innocuous Drones and Lethal Standoff Weapons

A panel moderated by Vishnu Som, with two pioneers of drone technology- Group Captain Harsh Vardhan Thakur, and Squadron Leader Sameer Joshi.


The expert panel endeavored to highlight the efforts being made in the private industry to catch up with this fast-developing technology. Drones embedded with AI will redefine warfare by 2030. China is one of the leading players and India will have to do much to keep up with international trends.

The Discussion

There is little doubt that drones are reimagining modern warfare. Vishnu Som highlighted that in the context of falling squadron strength of the Indian Air Force, and the high cost of manned platforms, drones provide a plausible alternative to bolster the striking power of the air force. Today over 181 nations are engaged in manufacturing high-quality drones or UAVs, with of course USA, Israel, and China being the top ones. Drones come in all sizes and for a variety of purposes from small payloads to large high altitude platforms.

Harsh Vardhan Thakur, an ace IAF test pilot, explained the concept now being experimented in many air forces where a single pilot in a traditional aircraft is given a variety of drones, UAVs and cruise missiles to control and employ against selected targets. This enables the manned aircraft to maintain a safe standoff distance from heavily defended targets. The outstanding feature of this marriage between man and machine is that both components are talking to each other, with one designating targets and other initiating the attack. The future is looking at swarms of 50 to 100 autonomous drones converging on single or multiple targets, overwhelming the air defenses.

The plan to develop indigenous swarming drones is part of the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) project which has three distinct elements. In addition to the ALFA-S swarm drones, a robotic wingman, meant to accompany a manned fighter jet into combat is being also being developed. The third element of CATS is an ultra-high-altitude drone capable of the endurance of up to three weeks at a stretch while providing real-time images and video. 

Long duration drones, powered by solar energy cells packing their entire surface area can orbit at great heights up to the stratosphere and act as pseudo geostationary satellites beaming signals back to earth. These will be at a fraction of a cost of a space-based satellite and can be brought back to base for repairs and upgradations.

Squadron Leader Sameer Joshi (Retired), CEO, New Space Research and technologies, a Bengaluru based start-up, has teamed up with state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Jointly they are looking at next-generation aviation technologies and working furiously to fly the first Indian swarm drone prototypes in two years. The drones have a name - ALFA-S or Air-Launched Flexible Asset (Swarm). In a video presentation, he showcased the abilities of his autonomous drones that can either work together in cohesion for a variety of tasks like surveillance or even attack and can also peel off and undertake independent missions on individual targets.   

The drones are fully networked with each other through electronic datalinks. Using their infrared and electro-optical sensors, they detect targets such as surface-to-air missile units, enemy radars, and aircraft on the ground. Each drone is designed to be smart enough to 'learn' about what it detects before targets are assigned to individual drones.

A lot of the technology being developed in-house presently is not available in the market. The United States, China, Russia, and a few European countries are also in the process of developing the first elements of their swarm-drone strike packages. 


  • A debate is needed to evolve defense procurement away from expensive multi-decade programs to more timely and nimble practices that leverage the latest commercial technology. With a different operating concept, and an acceptance of lower technological sophistication and optionality, a larger and cheaper jet fleet – or indeed drones – might be suitable.  
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones are coming of age and married with AI; they are proving to be extremely lethal weapons of war, both in the conventional sense as also in 5th G warfare. The recent attacks on Saudi oil installations and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani vindicate their effectiveness.
  • Maritime drones will spur greater man-machine teaming as part of the Third Offset strategy conceived by countries like the US. The key to this is to allow machines to aid human decision-making to work more efficiently.
  • It is encouraging to see that the Indian government is actively seeking private participation with a clutch of private Indian companies making drones and developing UAV technologies.