Game of drones: Unveiling the new era of war and conflict

Starting with the War on Terror, the combat drone has come of age in the Ukraine War, redefining warfare. UAV tech is the next frontier in world domination and the sci-fi dream of ruling the universe.

Published: 31st July 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th July 2022 02:18 PM   |  A+A-

Representational image for drones used in war.

Representational image for drones used in war.

“I never had to look up before.”

 The head of US Special Operations Command, Gen. Richard Clarke

On March 15 last year, something secret and unprecedented happened over the sands of Arabia. It portended a historic handshake. Just before 2 am, four Israeli Air Force pilots spotted two triangle-shaped Iranian drones speeding westward towards Israel over Arab territory. They were identified by Arab radar as Iranian combat drones. In a matter of seconds, two Zroa HaAvir VeHahalal fighter jets swooped down and blew them out of the sky.

The Sahara is a vast graveyard of countless empires such as the Sasanian and the Byzantine, the Mamluks and the Ottomans, and the last, the British Empire. History is payback. Today, nearly all Middle Eastern Sunni nations feel threatened by the expansionist ambitions of nuclear-enabled Shia Iran Arabs in the seventh century brought Islam to Persia after conquering the Sasanian Empire.  The age-old maxim, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend', has prevailed for centuries in the strife-ridden politics of West Asia.

Once Arab nations had waged war against Israel, vowing to drive it to the sea. But the haboobs of hell are blowing aside the dunes of distrust; after supporting terrorism diplomatically, financially, militarily and territorially, many sheikhdoms are uniting with the Jewish state against a common enemy—Iran. There have been reports of Israel building a US-inspired ‘regional air defence alliance’, which includes many Middle Eastern countries. It’s a military collaboration meant to neutralise drone attacks, missiles and rockets launched by Iran or its proxies, into their territory. Meanwhile, the Iranian Navy flexed its own muscle. State TV streamed visuals of a new ‘drone carrier’ division launching Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from warships and a submarine. The timing was significant, coinciding with US President Joe Biden’s Saudi Arabia visit on July 15. Significantly, Russian generals were in Tehran at the same time, shopping for drones. The die is cast and the player who will determine the course of the Middle Eastern conflict could be the combat drone.


The Drone Era arrived with the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It has finally come of age now during the Russo-Ukraine War. Every significant war throws up iconic weapons. The Indian Gnat, the B52 bomber, the Spitfire, the Sherman tank and the AK47 have marked the end and beginning of military eras. In early March, a song titled Bayraktar, rendered enthusiastically by a young Ukrainian soldier named Taras Borovok debuted on YouTube. It went viral. Wars are not always won with superior weapons; resistance fighters have crippled and demoralised large occupying armies.

Borovok’s lyrics inspire his warrior comrades to fight on They wanted to invade us with force, and we took offence at these orcs. Russian bandits are made into ghosts by… Bayraktar! The Bayraktar the young fighter refers to is the Turkish-made TB2 combat drone, which is wreaking havoc on Russia’s army and armaments ever since Putin invaded Ukraine in February. Loaded with laser-guided bombs, these drones have annihilated entire tank columns and killed countless Russian soldiers, thereby becoming symbols of Ukrainian resistance to tyranny. Combat drones, both Russian and Ukrainian, are outlining the face of war. 

The drone war between the two countries isn’t new to the region, although technological upgrades have increased its lethality. When Russia annexed Crimea by force in 2014, it deployed ‘interceptor’ drones against Ukrainian fighter jets. The ancient ghosts of Persian imperium have been resurrected in the Coliseum of West Asia. Iran, backed by Russia and China, is today the most powerful military counterweight to Israel. It is also the most aggressive force in modern drone warfare, both direct and by proxy. Iran escalated its drone programme after an American MQ-9 Reaper killed its ruthless general Qassem Soleimani in 2020 on Donald Trump’s orders. Poised to be the leader of the Islamic world, it is preparing to supply “up to several hundred” combat drones to the Russian army in Ukraine, according to a White House statement on July 11.

These airborne killers are powerful enough to evade US-made Saudi and Emirati air defence systems, too. Last year, Newsweek reported that “Iran has developed an extensive arsenal of drones, including suicide drones capable of flying beyond 2,000 km. Israel and the US have both accused Iran of directly supplying UAS technology to partnered militias across the region, an allegation denied by the Islamic Republic”. The never-ending cycle of countering a big threat with a bigger threat is playing out in the drone world; US-made ordnance-carrying Switchblade ‘suicide’ drones can cruise at around 100 km/h and use cameras and guidance systems to dive-bomb their target. Its kamikaze run can last for up to 15 minutes and cross 10 km before striking. 

In March, it was reported that the US  will send 100 Switchblade drones of the 300 variant to Ukraine—a boon to the infantryman who can carry one around in a backpack to be instantly deployed against personnel and light vehicles—and was committed to sending 600 more. In April too, the US sent close to 600 Phoenix Ghost drones to Ukraine, a drone missile similar to the Switchblade. The loitering munition, which can hang in the air for six hours before acquiring a target, is said to have developed specifically for the war-torn country to destroy medium-armoured targets.


The military doctrine that whosoever controls the skies wins the war is now on steroids. Billions of dollars are being poured into scientific research to make better, faster, deadlier combat drones, which can fly longer distances and deliver bigger and deadlier payloads. The hunter-killer MQ-9 Reaper, which eliminated the notorious British terrorist ‘Jihadi John’, carries laser-guided bombs and Hellfire II and Sidewinder missiles. A 2020 New America report says 38 countries possess armed drones; the US, Israel, UK, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and the UAE all have conducted drone strikes. In 2020, Azerbaijan used Turkish and Israeli drones to defeat Armenian forces that relied only on tanks, artillery and fighter aircraft. Ethiopia used drones bought from Turkey, Iran and the UAE to smash Tigrayan separatists.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE unleash Chinese-made CH-4s against Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Meanwhile, the Houthis themselves have conducted 850 drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and fired 400 ballistic missiles at the desert kingdom in the last seven years, killing numerous civilians. The success of the combat drone is attracting billions for technological enhancement. The Unmanned Defense Aerial Vehicle Global Market Report 2022 foresees the international defence sector investing $98 billion “in new strike capabilities and intelligence gathering applications”.

The Pentagon budget for weapons and defence systems will go up from $2.5 billion (2020) to approximately $3.3 billion (end-2030). R&D spending on drones is set to increase from $3.2 billion (2020) to $4 billion (2029). Procurement funding is predicted to grow from $7.9 billion (2020) to $10.3 billion (2029 end). The post-pandemic global military drone market size is expected to go up from $13.31 billion in 2021 to $14.19 billion in 2022. 

Such stratospheric growth in UAVs is fuelled by non-state actors as well. Technological advancements are routinely subverted against humanity; the cellphone is used to explode bombs and terrorists use cryptocurrency on the dark web to purchase arms and explosives. It is the same story with drones. Terrorists are repurposing UAVs to lethal effect; Indian agencies suspect that Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists from Pakistan were responsible for the twin drone attacks on the technical IAF airport in Jammu on June 27.


The combat drone is changing Indian military strategy and command structures, too. Previously a domain of the Artillery, control of combat drones in the Eastern Command has been ceded to the Army Aviation Corps, which is flying UAV missions over the LAC amid Chinese incursions. The Narendra Modi administration is enacting sweeping changes in the Indian armed forces as it pursues the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (RMA) theory, which assumes that as changes happen in specific phases of human history, war will be waged using freshly emerging rules, strategies and know-how.

Since 2014, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been stepping on the gas to accelerate Make in India defence projects. On November 16, 2016, the armed drone Rustom-II, successfully completed its first test flight. The DRDO is now developing the top-secret Ghatak, which is likely to get a ship deck-based variant. India will be acquiring autonomous underwater vehicles or underwater drones with twin surveillance and strike capabilities.

“The Indian Navy is fully aware that the Chinese PLAN regularly operates underwater drones for surveillance of our naval assets,” says Vice-Admiral (retd) Suresh Bangara, who specialises in anti-submarine warfare. “Using underwater drones would be a first for the navy. They have been only used in sessions to detect practice torpedoes and track missiles without warheads,” he says. Recently, 
a large Indian conglomerate signed an MoU with Bengaluru-based New Space Research & technologies to develop and build ‘underwater launched UAVs’. HAL will produce the first five Tapas-BH-201 drones, costing Rs 1,786 crore; they can be armed, go on day and night missions, and take off and land on their own. The US and Israel are the biggest producers and sellers of drones in the world.

Until 2018, only NATO members could buy the drones, but Trump made an exception for India after his convivial meeting with PM Modi. According to SIPRI’s arms transfers database and Statista, a German company specialising in market and consumer data, India and Britain are the largest buyers of military drones. While Sri Lanka and Pakistan shop for UAVs from China, Pakistan’s indigenous drones are modelled on the Chinese CH-3.

Even as the skies swell up with sophisticated drones, a few experts believe India still has a lot of ground to cover in the field of UAVs. “Our DRDO has lagged behind tremendously and we have had to import, and will continue to, for the next decade at least. There is much flight-testing to be done after a prototype gets airborne and one must not get taken in by the hype,” says AVM (retd) Manmohan Bahadur. 

This is where the private sector can play a key role, he says. The growing number of indigenous entities and the government’s intent to buy from them has enhanced the domestic capability and reduced dependency on imports. The introduction of the Drone Rules 2021 to has changed the conversation between the government and private manufacturers. “The drone regulations have allowed 
a lot of people to intend to comply with the policy, owing to its high standards yet operational simplicity. There is genuine energy in the ecosystem to quickly comply with the regulations and get to hyper-growth phases,” says Rahul Singh, co-founder and VP of Engineering of Mumbai-based ideaForge, the largest supplier of mini UAVs to the Indian Army.

With a customer base comprising the three arms of defence forces, the Central Armed Police Forces and the majority of the state police forces, ideaForge earlier this year bagged a repeat contract to supply its SWITCH UAVs to the Indian Army. Last year, the company won a $20-million contract to supply a fixed-wing drone capable of vertical take-off and landing, making it the first indigenously produced drone to be used by the Indian Army. 


Though China’s oppression of Uighurs in Xingang province is an open secret in the Islamic world, 
it doesn’t stop Muslim countries from buying them. China has deployed drones in the region to track separatists and arrest them. Terrorism is an alarming addition to the global security vector. In 2004, the Lebanese Hezbollah flew a military-grade Iran-supplied Mirsad-I over Israeli airspace. In 2015, Islamic State (IS) began to use surveillance drones on the battlefield and pounded Iraqi soldiers. Hezbollah, which has air-bombed IS militants, is adept at employing repurposed drones in battles—in August 2016, a YouTube video showed one such drone dropping ordnance on Syrian rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad. In 2012, Israeli jets took out eight drone-making facilities belonging to the Palestinian terror group Hamas.

In 2017, the al-Naba newsletter of IS announced the creation of the ‘Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen’.The terror outfit had conducted drone attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria. The New America’s World of Drones database states that as of January 2018, at least 13 non-state actors have access to drone technology, including jihadists. Death by drone is a nightmare for political leaders in countries plagued by terrorist activity. In November last year, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi escaped an assassination attempt by drones laden with explosives. In August 2018, terrorists unsuccessfully tried to kill Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a military parade in Caracas using two drones rigged with explosives.

Western security experts fret about radicals using drones to detonate dirty bombs in American cities. According to a Cambridge University Press paper on ‘Counter-Terrorism Medicine Analysis of Drone Attacks’, 76 aerial terror attacks have happened, with the first one occurring in 2016. Seventy per cent of the bombings were successful. The West fears that the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan has helped IS and al-Qaeda to regroup. The first strike was with aeroplanes in 2021. Terror drones could be the vanguard of a new wave of death and destruction in the new decade.


September 11 and the subsequent West Asian wars involving the US pencils at the beginning of the modern Drone Era. The shocked expletive “What the f*** was that?” marks the first drone disaster in America’s War on Terror, which subsequently terrorised terrorists and killed scores of civilians in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria using combat drones. On the night of October 7, 2001, the CIA launched its first Hellfire missile from a Predator drone against terrorist leader Mullah Omar hiding in Kandahar. (Presently, the UAV, tailfin number 3034, is on exhibit in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC). The CIA had located his house.

The Predator’s camera identified him leaving home with his entourage. He then stopped and entered another facility next door. Predator tailfin number 3034 was being piloted from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The order rang out, “You are cleared to fire!” But the drone struck a nearby vehicle filled with Omar’s bodyguards instead of the building he was in. The terrorist escaped. Till now it is not clear who messed up and why. Chris Woods’s book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars credits the weaponising of the Predator to bin Laden.

On August 7, 1998, bin Laden sent suicide bombers to attack US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar 
es Salaam, Tanzania. A manhunt was launched, but the billionaire terrorist, hiding in the Afghan mountains, was untraceable. The US even considered secretly installing a massive telescope on 
a mountain to look for him. The CIA finally turned to the Predator, which was unarmed then. One flew into Afghanistan on September 7, 2000—just a year before 9/11. Two weeks later, it spotted bin Laden hiding in Tarnak Farms near Kandahar. Since the Predator possessed only a laser illumination system, it couldn’t take out the terrorist. It was then that the US Air Force decided to weaponise the Predator with Hellfire missiles. The rest is history. The Predator’s successor is the MQ-9 Reaper, the nemesis of terrorists, which has been on duty in the air for over two decades.


Surveillance drones have an edge in air-to-ground warfare—they can find and pinpoint targets accurately. Stealth aircraft is a soldier’s nightmare. The US stealth drone—the highly clandestine RQ-170 Sentinel—has been spotted very few times; the first sighting was in 2007 in Afghanistan and the last in end-2021. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, the clandestine drone has earned the scary sobriquet “Beast of Kandahar” after its Afghan sorties that identified hundreds of terrorists.
This high-altitude drone’s capability of reaching 50,000 ft makes it invaluable to the US Air Force; 
it is used for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic warfare.

If the Predator spotted bin Laden in September 2000, it was the Sentinel that streamed the video of the 2011 raid on the terrorist’s house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, to the Situation Room in the White House basement, where then-President Barack Obama and the national security team sat watching the action. Experts say that an RQ-170 derivative has been upgraded with better sensors and radar. It has been reportedly spotted over Guam, a North Pacific Island in Micronesia, east of Manila. In the US-China-Russia tug of war, the Sentinel may come useful against China and North Korea in a crisis. “The Beast of Kandahar may become the Beast of East Asia in the future,” according to Brent M Eastwood, author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare.

Humankind is constantly looking to the future, as nations strive to dominate the next level of competition. Like the war chariot evolved into the battle tank, and the trebuchet ultimately became the missile launcher, the drone could be the king of the air soon if it isn’t already. The ultimate aim of any military is to reduce the loss of personnel. Defence departments are trying to reduce the margin of error to almost nil, by combining human skill and Artificial Intelligence. The US Air Force’s Skyborg programme has successfully developed the ‘collaborative combat aircraft’ concept: unmanned armed drones accompanying manned F-35 jets in teams of five on combat missions.

Drone power is expanding in scale. The X-47B is massive, weighing almost 20 times more than the Predator. One of these can cover 4,000km on a single tank of fuel—mileage any auto-manufacturing company will kill for. The Lockheed Martin SR-72 ‘Son of Blackbird’ cannot be matched by any current fighter aircraft; it flies at Mach 6, six times the speed of sound. UAVs have been making history not just on Earth, but in outer space, too. Ingenuity, the unmanned Mars Helicopter on NASA’s Perseverance, did a short flight over the surface of Mars. Incidentally, it carried a piece of wing fabric from the Wright brothers’ aeroplane. History doesn’t always repeat itself. It gets an upgrade. The combat drone is proof of that.

Top 10 lethal Drones (Source: New America)

TAI Aksungur
Turkish for gyrfalcon (the largest of the falcons), Aksungur is a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries for its armed forces. Built on the technology from the TAI Anka series, it is said to have a better payload capacity (1,653 lb) and is designed for long-term surveillance, signals intelligence and marine patrol operations. 

Considered the backbone of the Russian heavy drones, and a match to the US-made MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs, the Sokol Altius is a MALE UAV with striking and reconnaissance capabilities for the Russian Air Force and Navy. The Altius-U, which took its maiden flight in 2016, has a payload capacity of 2,200 lb.

Bayraktar Akıncı
A Turkish high-altitude and long-endurance UCAV, Bayraktar Akinci is believed to be able to fire octagon air-to-air missiles both within and beyond observable range. Equipped with micro munitions and general-purpose explosives, it can also fire rockets on long-range air-launch cruise missiles. With a range of up to 150 miles, it has a payload capacity of around 3,000 lb.

Hong Du GJ-11 Sharp Sword
A Chinese stealth UCAV, the Hongdu GJ-11 Sharp Sword was first sighted in 2013. Though not much information is available on it, the drone is said to have a range of 2,485 miles, and a cruise speed 
of 621 mph. A stealth drone, has a large internal weapon bay and is capable of delivering laser-guided munitions. 

Hermes 900
An Israeli MALE UAV, the Hermes 900 Kochav (‘Star’) is a successor to the Hermes 450 series of drones. A medium-sized, multi-payload Hermes 900 can cruise at 70 miles an hour. Though primarily used for reconnaissance, surveillance and communications, the UAV has a payload capability of around 770 lb.

MQ-9 Reaper (Predator B)
The world’s first hunter-killer UAV with long-range, high-altitude surveillance capabilities, the MQ-9 is larger, heavier and more powerful than the MQ-8. Although not the most technologically advanced—it first flew in 2001—MQ is still the most widely created and used. With a payload capacity of 3,800 lb and a range of 1,200 miles, the Reaper is the poster child of drones in modern warfare.

CASC Rainbow (CH-5)
The latest in the Rainbow Series, the Chinese-built CH5 is a MALE UCAV with a munition-carrying capacity of 2,200 lb. Similar to the MQ-9 Reaper in performance and appearance, CH-5 conducted its maiden flight in August 2015. 

MQ-20 Avenger
Formerly called Predator C, the MQ-20 Avenger is a multi-mission ISR, mostly used by the US Air Force. It’s a perfect fit for high-threat regions, owing to its speed and design. Powered by a turbofan engine, the MQ-20 Avenger has stealth features and can transport munitions to the tune of nearly 6,500 lb.

A significant part of the US Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration programme, the Northrop Grumman X-47B is a UCAV designed for aircraft carrier-based operations. The combat drone, which has a payload capacity of 4,500 lb and a cruise speed of Mach 0.45+ (high subsonic), first flew over a decade ago.

AIG Wing Loong II
First introduced in September 2015 at an aviation expo in Beijing for use as a surveillance, reconnaissance and precision attack platform, the Chengdu Wing Loong II is capable of long-distance strikes through satellite connections. It can carry over 1,000 lb of payload and has a battery life of roughly 32 hours.

Killing Machines of the Sky
There are three groups of drone users: countries using armed drones, countries with combat drones, but haven’t used them, and countries developing armed drones. Drone capabilities are classified according to the US Air Force tier system. Tier I means low-altitude, low-endurance drones like the Orbiter; Tier II consists of medium-altitude, long-endurance drones like the Reaper; and Tier II+ comprises high-altitude, long-endurance drones like the Global Hawk. 

  • 76 terrorist attacks using UAVs, with the first such in 2016. 
  • The number of attacks per year varied from 4-36
  • 47 of the 76 attacks (70%) successful
  • 50 deaths and 132 injuries were recorded, which equated to 1.09 deaths and 2.89 injuries per successful attack 
  • The mean number of UAVs used in an attack was 1.28 and multiple UAVs were used in 22% of attacks

(Source: Cambridge University Press paper on ‘Counter-Terrorism Medicine Analysis of Drone Attacks’)

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