Thursday, June 5, 2014

India - The drones against people'swar and PCIm

Two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were deployed in Bihar on May 27 and 28, 2014, to monitor movement of Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadres in Aurangabad, Gaya and Jamui Districts. Earlier, in February, UAVs had been used in Bihar in anti-Maoist operations for the first time. A senior officer associated with the anti-Maoist operations reportedly disclosed, after the induction of the UAVs, that security personnel had been able to pick up conversations and movements of the Maoists on the ground: “The drones flash real-time images of the movement and conversation of the Maoists and send the data immediately to the commandos. We can also get pictures of the exit routes of the rebels with the help of the drones and take action accordingly.”
However, optimism over the utility of the UAVs notwithstanding, there have been few operational successes to boast of on the basis of data provided by UAVs. Nevertheless, in May 2012, when Sukma District Collector Alex Paul Menon was abducted by the Maoists, UAV surveillance had spotted Menon and his Maoist abductors and even picked up some ground conversations. However, UAV surveillance was withdrawn as negotiations progressed. Again, in January 2013, when an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter hit by Maoist fire force-landed in Sukma District (Chhattisgarh), and was abandoned along with an injured radio operator by the IAF crew, UAVs reportedly maintained surveillance through most of the night, until Security Forces (SFs) arrived to secure the area.
The most dramatic failure of the UAVs came in May 2013, when they generated no specific intelligence before or after the Maoist attack on the convoy of the Congress party in Darbha Vally on May 25, which resulted in the killing of at least 28 persons, including Mahendra Karma, the controversial architect of the Salwa Judum, and other top Congress leaders. Nearly 300 Maoists had taken part in the attack, but their gathering and movement went entirely undetected. In this case, it was noted that whatever efficiency the drones could have shown, despite the technical weakness of not being able to penetrate foliage and not being able to distinguish a Maoist from an ordinary villager, was undone because of the location of the operational base of the UAVs. A pilot project to use aerial surveillance in anti-Naxal operations was started in 2006 in Chhattisgarh.
However, the UAVs, deployed in August 2006 at the Raipur airfield, were “forcefully grounded” after failing to collect adequate information about Maoist movements in the State. While it was officially claimed that the operation was withdrawn due to bad weather, there was evidence that UAV monitoring was being deliberately undermined by leaks from within the establishment. IAF officers managing the UAV operations in the State complained that ‘intelligence leaks on flight details’ had undermined the utility of the spy drones. Unnamed IAF officials hinted at a ‘lack of will’ in the State Government and problems of coordination with the State Forces.
In the initial months of UAV deployment, a number of Maoist ‘hotspots’ had been detected, but there were no follow-up operations by the forces. After the initial failure UAVs were again tested in 2009. The trials of the UAVs, developed by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), were conducted in Hissar and Delhi, while more trials were to be conducted in the jungles of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Then in 2010 a US Honeywell manufactured UAV, whose pilotless planes had reportedly been used successfully by Allied Forces in the hunt for targets in war-hit Afghanistan and Iraq, was tested from the Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College in Kanker, Chhattisgarh.
The test was witnessed by officials from Chhattisgarh, the Union Home Ministry, as well as Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. The program, however, failed to take off. After many failed starts, 12 Israeli-made Searcher tactical UAVs were imported in 2012 for intelligence gathering over the Naxal areas of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. These were (and are still) being flown from National Technical Research Organisation’s (NTRO) base in Begumpet near Hyderabad. The Begumpet Airport from where the NTRO directs and flies reconnaissance missions, is more than 500 kilometres away from South Bastar.
As one official, on conditions of anonymity, observed, “The UAVs take 2-3 hours to cover 500 kilometres. Moreover, their range is 900-1000 kilometres, which means that an aerial vehicle flying from Begumpet would hardly touch South Bastar and would then need to fly back.” This has been one of the principal reasons why the utility of the UAVs has been severely restricted, and why they proved useless before and after the May 25 Darbha Valley attack. It is not that the issue of range of the UAVs was not given consideration while operation from Begumpet.
Rather, in 2012, the IAF reportedly rejected calls for the fleet to be relocated at Jagdalpur, in Bastar arguing that living facilities at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)-run airstrip in Jagdalpur did not meet the standards its pilots expected. Instead, the IAF suggested relocating the drones to an airstrip operated by the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) in Bhilai — some 250 kilometres from Jagdalpur, somewhat less than half the distance from Hyderabad. In April 2012, then Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had directed that a UAV base be set up in Bhilai near Raipur in “less than two months”.
But even a year later (by May 2013) meetings continued to be held between MHA, NTRO and the IAF, but nothing was resolved. The then Union Home Secretary R.K Singh noted that “being a scare resource, optimisation of UAV effort for operations against left wing extremists is a critical need” and added, “more delays will not be tolerated.” The IAF, however, responded, “The IAF provides assistance in the form of training and augmented specialist manpower for operations at whichever base the NTRO operates from. The IAF recommends and is fully supportive of the move to operating bases closer to the affected areas.” Despite all these statements, things remain much the same even today. In the aftermath of May 25, 2013 Darbha valley attack, it was decided to expedite the process of setting up of Bhilai base.
Within a month an understanding was reached between the SAIL and the NTRO, which operates the UAVs. It was claimed that it was only a matter of a “short time” before UAVs started doing daily sorties from Bhilai. While none of the officials were willing to come on record regarding a specific date, it was believed that the shifting of the base would occur by the end of 2013. However, even in June 2014, the NTRO base at Bhilai is yet to become operational and the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has ‘requested’ NTRO to expedite the process. According to some Police officers, the UAVs have become a “white elephant” despite the “fact that the UAV can be deployed to gather intelligence after an attack to quickly locate the retreating Naxalites. Besides capturing images, it is also capable of picking up voices.”
Critics also emphasize the technical limitations of the UAVs, particularly the fact that the electro-optical, thermal and radar sensors on the drones cannot penetrate the foliage of the primarily forested areas in which the Maoists find refuge. Large swathes of the afflicted territories on the Chhattisgarh-Odisha border are under dense forest cover, undermining the potential of the drones. Even outside of forested areas, drone sensors fail to distinguish between Maoist clusters and ordinary villagers. Crucially, the current misalignment of infrastructure and command and control systems for the UAVs have resulted in unacceptable delays in the analysis and transmission of intelligence to the responders.
The IAF passes on the data harvested by its drones to the NTRO for analysis. The NTRO, however, doesn’t have real-time access to the ground intelligence being generated by the Police and Intelligence Bureau. Meanwhile, the DRDO is developing UAVs for the for the field units of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). Giving details of the UAV project during a media interaction at Defexpo in February 2014, DRDO chief Avinash Chander said the vehicles being developed would be able to help the Forces trace and track down the ultra Left operatives even in thick forests. Chander said the scientists of DRDO have worked closely with CRPF in developing the UAVs.
“The two have worked closely on the configuration required for operation in such difficult areas.” He said for UAVs meant to work in thick Indian forests would operate on “lower frequency radars”. The DRDO Chief, however, cautioned, “No technology is available yet to penetrate the dense foliage of Indian tropical forests. We are working on lower frequency radars that will be able to penetrate foliage. Within a couple of years we will have a solution.”
Despite the limitations of the available technology, the UAVs offer a ray of hope to SFs operating in difficult situations, with an acute dearth of human intelligence. Even if greater efficiencies could be brought into their location, command and control systems, and a greater measure of coordination could be introduced into the analysis and dispersal of intelligence from diverse sources, their effectiveness could be enormously enhanced. The present and characteristic delay in implementation of projects, moreover, is entirely avoidable. Many lives will be saved if the concerned authorities respond with a greater urgency, before the Maoists deliver another brutal reminder of their intentions and capabilities.

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