T he Indian Air Force (IAF) is looking at ground personnel to pilot its Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). StratPost has been informed that the IAF is ‘flexible’ in terms of recruiting and training ‘external pilots’ for its UAVs. “If we look at training some 100 pilots for this purpose, there is no way we can fulfill our requirements for our existing aircraft fleet as well as for UAVs, especially considering the shortage of pilots,” said one senior officer.
This practical approach adopted by the IAF is likely to include ground personnel and is not likely to be prejudiced by rank. In the US, while the Air Force (USAF) insists on deploying only officer-ranked qualified pilots to pilot UAVs, the US Army has no problem in having Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBORs) pilot these aircraft. “The way we see it, as long as the person qualifies technically for the job, we would not have any problem with having personnel on ground duties piloting these aircraft. And this is not something we plan to restrict to officers only,” said the source.
“What is required is the technical knowledge, good judgment and quick reflexes. A lot of our people on the ground are highly qualified people, so there is no reason why we should not utilize their skills in this capacity,” he explains, also indicating that a decision on this is likely to be announced soon. This year, the USAF has decided to train more officer cadets on piloting UAVs than conventional aircraft.
So far, the IAF has the Israeli Heron and Searcher II UAVs as well as the indigenous Lakshya and Nishant. Of these, the Lakshya is a Pilotless Target Aircraft, used for training and not a platform with an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) role, unlike the other three. An IAF Searcher II was reportedly brought down by the Pakistan Air Force on June 07, 2002.
When the Air-Officer-Commanding in Chief of the Western Air Command (WAC) of the IAF was asked on Friday about how close the IAF was to getting UCAVs, he admitted after a pause, “Not very close.” While Air Marshal NAK Browne explained that the IAF did have plans for such systems and that there was an indigenous program, any such induction would take time.
UCAVs are UAVs, whose role extends beyond ISR as a platform optimized for weapons delivery. While the Predator and Reaper are well-known examples of UAVs optimized for a sensor-shooter role and have convincingly proved their utility in low- intensity conflict, it is systems like the US-built Avenger, the Israeli Eitan and Hermes 450 that are the next technological step towards building capabilities in the conduct of unmanned aerial operations. In fact Israeli UCAVS, variously reported to be either the Eitan or the Hermes 450, were reported to have been used by Israel to carry out airstrikes on a convoy in Sudan allegedly carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza and also an Iranian arms ship in the Red Sea, docking in Sudan during Operation Cast Lead in January this year. While the IAF is quite aware of the force-multiplier effect UAVs can have in an offensive role, there are still challenges to be overcome before it can induct Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs).
The challenge for the IAF here is to achieve the high degrees of network capabilities required. “While the Af-Net (Air Force Net) is being setup, only when it is fully functional can we think of going ahead on these lines,” says the source, adding, “Naturally, the question of whether we can acquire these advanced technology platforms from other countries also limits our capacity-building.”