UAVs for Anti-Naxal Ops: Agencies can’t coordinate so will duplicate

Troops fighting Naxal violence continue to be denied the technological edge already paid for by the govt. On the other hand, an ‘upset’ Home Ministry will duplicate assets and splurge thousands of crores because the spy agency NTRO rides roughshod with them

NTRO operates the Heron, a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV from its base out of the Begumpet airport, Hyderabad. Photo credit: Image credit: SSGT REYNALDO RAMON, USAF
NTRO operates the Heron, a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV from its base out of the Begumpet airport, Hyderabad. Photo credit: Image credit: SSGT REYNALDO RAMON, USAF

Sitting 50 yards away from the site of the deadly encounter which claimed the lives of nine of his ‘boys’ in Latehar, Jharkhand, in the first week of January, a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officer said, “But for a UAV, the tables would have turned. We would have spotted their ambush and planned accordingly.” This commander’s suffering is neither new nor unattended to. Yet it is unlikely to be adequately addressed anytime soon.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the National Technological Research Organisation (NTRO), which operates the UAVs across central India for electronic intelligence, are unable to match steps. So much so that the Home Secretary RK Singh now wants CRPF to ‘reduce its dependence on NTRO/Indian Air Force’ by raising an entirely new fleet of UAVs – a complex, costly & time-consuming task.

Why the UAVs are so important

Flown and controlled from Hyderabad’s Begumpet airport, NTRO’s UAV (Israeli-made HERON) relays live images of the situation back to the control room with the help of a high-resolution camera on its belly and satellite networking, which is then shared with the troops.

For the CRPF, the entry of UAVs changed the game. Not only could the forces know the exact area of the Maoists’presence, but could also asses the topography and execute an operation – an edge they NEVER had. Seeing the utility of UAVs the CRPF is now working on establishing an Air Surveillance Unit (ASU) to ‘continuously monitor’ the movements of the insurgents. This even as there is growing clamour from within to fly more number of these assets from larger number of bases for all round coverage.

The then Director General of the CRPF, K Vijay Kumar wrote to the Union Home Secretary RK Singh in December 2011, commending the UAV’s role in the first-ever UAV-aided operation in Chattisgarh, but also warning, “The UAV almost took three hours to reach from Hyderabad and could effectively be utilised only for 3-3 1/2 hours for the area of operation.” He advised Singh to take up the issue and make NTRO shift to bases closeby.

Why the game-changer lost steam

Notwithstanding the initial success, issues have remained particularly in terms of the manpower the NTRO provided for UAV operations and unpreparedness to shift out of Hyderabad.

On November 17, 2011, the Chairman, NTRO informed the then Home Minister P Chidambaram of ‘certain logistical problems’ in shifting out of Begumpet. Not to give up, in December, Chidambaram wrote to the National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon to whom the NTRO reports. Terming the operations from Begumpet as ‘extremely limited and skewed’, Chidambaram stated that the ‘deficient crew inhibited operational efficiency’.  This author in fact learned that of the 110 requests placed by the CRPF for UAVs to fly in 2012, the NTRO flew them only on 26 occasions.

A senior CRPF officer narrated, “In February 2012, we were told that two additional bases were being expeditiously created for UAV operations.” That there was no change was evident when an exasperated Chidambaram warned the NTRO in a meeting on April 20, 2012 to shift out of Begumpet ‘within two months’. “Yet even today, they continue to operate only from there,” said a source. Out of the total nine states affected by the Maoist insurgency, Begumpet base barely ensures a coverage of only Odisha, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh leaving out Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand.

The road ahead
The CRPF has made it clear that UAVs will have to continue flying, with or without the NTRO. The MHA has given the go ahead to the CRPF to acquire ten mini-UAVs and also firm up their Qualitative Requirements (QRs) for regular UAVs like Heron. All of this may mean incurring more than Rs 1000 crore, besides duplication.

NTRO’s defence
A senior officer from the NTRO informed that work is already in progress and within a couple of months they will begin operations from an additional base in Chattisgarh. “Our UAVs are biggest-ones available, the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE). Thus it is not very easy to simply shift them and start operating. A lot of related infrastructure which includes an Air Traffic Controller (ATC) and specialization goes in. It takes time,” he said. It was not clear if with an additional base, the NTRO was also deploying an additional ground station.

It is learnt that the entire UAV operations of the NTRO are controlled by an Air Vice Marshal (AVM) from the Indian Air Force (IAF), who is on deputation with his office in New Delhi. Further, the entire staff he has is also from the Air Force. An IAF spokesperson confirmed this by adding that the Air Force staff reports to the Chairman NTRO and not the Air Chief, which according to informed sources made things complicated. “Why do you think the army was forced into acquiring their aviation wing and now attack helicopters? We face similar problems with them. No effort is made to understand the ground situation. All they do is operate as per the book,” said a MHA official.

The spy agency, a creation of the post-Kargil K Subrahmanyam committee, has no independent cadre like the Research and Analysis Wing (R & AW) does. It is thus staffed by men on deputation.


VIEW my report on subject, which was aired on HEADLINES TODAY on March 5, 2012:

READ related reports


6 thoughts on “UAVs for Anti-Naxal Ops: Agencies can’t coordinate so will duplicate”

  1. Comment on Mail:
    That was informative. Bureaucratic tendencies and turf protection is not alien to uniformed services.

  2. Comment on Mail:
    We have a bloated top heavy government with z plus for every tom dick and harry – the priorities are weird. We want to create or have created new agencies without sorting out or improving/ up grading what we have. And whats coming to India once the Jihadis need remeployment after the pull out of the western forces are huge problems as they now seek remeployment in India. In essence New Delhi fiddles while the Union burns…

  3. Comment on Mail:

    You have highlighted the core issue which plagues the national security effort – the lack of cohesion leading to an incoherent approach to a live and critical issue. In the absence of an articulated national security strategy , the approach will always remain haphazard. Despite the gravity of the 26/11 attacks and the usual reaction towards enhancing coastal security, it has taken almost five years to get things on ground and the situation is still far from perfect – you would recall that a large merchant vesssel could drift and run aground off Goa without being noticed/detected.

    For a coherent approach to national security , it is very important that the legislature is strong and the political leadership willing to take tough decisions in reining in various agencies, each trying to create its own empire. Just setting up organisations is not enough – their role should be clearly enunciated and then they should be held accountable. Unfortunately lack of accountability is a major concern.

    In this case, perhaps NTRO too has its limitations in terms of avaiable resources and the tasking expected of them.

    The entire approach towards aerial surveillance should be reviewed and a comprehensive requirement should be worked out. Today it is the CRPF ( and they are not unjustified in wanting UAVs) , tomorrow the state police, then the ITBP and the list goes on and on.

    This is not a subject to be studied in isolation but part of an entire eco-system, the roots of which itself need to be addressed and requirements optimised.

  4. Comment on Mail:

    ts very heartening to notice that you pick up really genuine issues.

    In my personal and professional opinion, resources must be shared to optimise effective utilisation, within Govt agencies – that’s the way ahead !

  5. Comment on Mail:
    The article is very good. The important point is to analyse the weakness of NTRO inerting the expectations of CRPF and strengthening the existing setup rather than creating a new set up which will have many teething problems.

  6. To many, national security(here naxal menace) is the baby of CRPF only, in the name of intelligence building many agencies,experts enjoying privilege with all luxuries in metros. Jagdalpur /Raipur may be the appropriate place to operate from because of its central position to all naxal hit states and also may provide qiuck response to the burning Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

So, what do you think about it?

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