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22 March 2022, Gateway House

Indian drones prepare for flight

The 2022-23 Indian budget has made a provision to encourage private sector participation and military collaborations in drone technology and manufacture. This will boost indigenous production, limit imports, and develop India's drone capabilities and counter-measures.

Former Fellow, International Security Studies Programme

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On 15 January 2021, during India’s Army Day parade, the army unleashed a swarm of 75 drones that identified and then destroyed a variety of fake targets–tanks, terrorist camps, and helipads.[1] This demonstration of unmanned warfare was only the beginning, the announcer said. The army is working with the private sector to develop a swarm of a thousand drones that would operate autonomously. With nations competing to develop the future of modern warfare, India is stepping up its drone capabilities for use on the battlefield. But it also wants drones to protect borders, counter terrorists, fight drug smugglers, and support farmers.

Although India ranks third in the world for military spending, its drone programme has struggled for years and lags far behind that of rivals, China and Pakistan.

Recently, though, India has been making strides: designing and building drones domestically with government funds, and through public-private partnerships. It has also imported drones and drone technology from Israel and the United States.

In November 2021, the Indian military demonstrated its new, medium altitude, long endurance drone, Rustom. The unmanned aircraft took off, landed autonomously, and used satellite navigation systems.[2] Unmanned ground, surface, and undersea systems, are in early stages of development. These drones are primarily designed for intelligence gathering, bomb disposal and demining.

A branch of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been at work for years developing a stealthy combat drone for the Air Force. When completed, the Ghatak will be able to fly into enemy territory undetected to drop bombs and precision-guided missiles. Though the project is classified, a video emerged last year showing runway tests of a small precursor model to the Ghatak.[3]

Catching up to rivals

China, India’s main adversary, has in the last few years made tremendous strides in drone technology and now leads the world. It has sold 50 Wing Loong II armed drones to Pakistan and also given that country five CH-4 unmanned aircraft and armed drones. The developer of the CH-4 claims it has shown a 99% kill rate in regional conflicts.[4] Pakistan, in addition to obtaining Chinese drones, has partnered with Turkish Aerospace Industries to produce Anka, a medium-altitude, long-endurance drone.[5]

One of India’s goals is to close that gap in drone capability. India’s DRDO struggled for years to develop a ready to deploy drone.   It developed the Nishant Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) during the 1990s and early 2000s for reconnaissance and surveillance. After three of the four systems crashed, the Indian army ended the programme[6] and India then imported a wide range of Israeli drones, including the medium-altitude long-endurance Heron I, the Searcher MK II, and the Harop loitering munition.[7] India has leased two Predator drones from the United States and hopes to sign a $3 billion deal for 30 more.[8]

The DRDO has not given up. Its Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics is researching industrial and mobile robots[9] and has developed prototypes for drones to defuse bombs, remove mines and conduct surveillance.

The difficulties of state-owned DRDO contrast with the successes of Indian private sector drone makers. Companies like ideaForge have supplied drone aircraft to the Indian security forces, including the Indian Army.

EyeROV Technologies developed and sells India’s first commercial drone for underwater inspections and operations. Sagar Defence Engineering is developing an unmanned, autonomous drone that floats on the ocean surface and collects data that it relays to satellites. The Indian Navy is interested in this drone for its hydrological surveys.[10]

But India lacks capabilities in key areas: motors and electronics must be imported. Local solutions exist but are more expensive and perform less well. The indigenous drone industry stands to receive a boost with the 9 February 2022 ban on the import of drones, excluding drone components and drones for defence purposes.

Countering drone threats from individuals and groups

Besides governments, groups and individuals have access to and deploy drones that threaten India’s peace and stability. Terrorist organisations directly threaten India with this technology. In June 2021, Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba used drones to drop homemade bombs on the Indian Air Force base in the northern region of Jammu, the first attack of its kind.[11] Drones are used to smuggle drugs on India’s border with Pakistan. The chief of India’s Border Security Force reported that 67 drones were sighted in 2021 and that others likely had gone undetected. Shooting down these drones was difficult, he added.[12]

In the aftermath of the 2021 attack at Jammu, the Indian security establishment and strategic community have focused on the need to invest in ways to counter drones, especially armed ones, and defend against them.[13] Although the Indian Army has counter-drone systems, they must form as part of a larger strategy such as a modular, scalable counter-drone network, given the speeds drones can reach and how easily they elude traditional ground-based defences.[14] As part of its strategy, India should consider requiring drones to have geofencing so they cannot fly into critical infrastructure areas.

Broader questions

In a much touted victory for unmanned combat, Azerbaijan crushed Armenia with the help of aerial drones in its dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh last autumn, decimating Armenian troops and leading to a rapid surrender. As the era of drone warfare begins, India needs to pause and consider what drones mean for their military: What opportunities exist to build better ties between India and other nations while advancing drone-related technologies? How can unmanned and autonomous systems be best employed to win in a battle? Not least, under what circumstances should machines kill instead of soldiers?

As it ponders these military, logistical, and moral questions, India is not alone. The United States – like India – is concerned about China’s dominance in the drone sphere and worried about the threat of homegrown terrorists deploying drones. The two states can develop novel counter-measures to drone swarms and autonomous drones and collaborate on research and development to counter a shared rival and deepen bilateral ties. In September 2021, the United States and India agreed to share costs and work together to develop an air-launched drone that would benefit their respective air forces. This initial step can be expanded and built upon.

How drones are used is often more important than their technical details. Within weight and power constraints, drones can carry any payload imaginable: anti-tank missiles, electronic warfare equipment, or simply guns and bombs.

As India develops its drone capabilities, the country must identify and experiment with what is most valuable for the country’s security, including how much autonomy machines will have and under what circumstances they may kill.

In international debates over lethal autonomous weapon systems, India has emphasised that human control, not artificial intelligence, must make the decision to attack and that the existing technological gap between nations should not be exacerbated through the development of these new weapons.[15] It has not called for an outright ban. Citing the risks associated with these systems, it has called for regulation and suggested the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons be the forum for debate.[16]

While worldwide rules on the use of lethal drones are being formulated, India can inform international law as it shapes its domestic legal framework on emerging military technologies.

Underlying these questions is a far more basic one: Will India’s domestic military efforts to develop and build drones take off or, once again, crash to the ground?

Sameer Patil is former Fellow,  International Security Studies, Gateway House. 

Zachary Kallenborn is Research Affiliate, Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), University of Maryland and Policy Fellow, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University.

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