Why MHA’s UAV mission may just be impossible


(As appeared on indiatoday.intoday.in)

Stonewalled for over a year and a half by the spy-agency National Technological Research Organisation (NTRO), the  Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has tasked the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) with procuring the vital Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for anti-Naxal operations. While fully justified in being upset with the spy agency, there are not many takers for the MHA’s move to duplicate assets.

Sources say the MHA proposal will face a tough scrutiny when it reaches the Finance ministry. Notwithstanding that, the opposition to this comes from not just on the exorbitant price tags but also on account of the complexity of the task involved.

Adding a yet another question mark to this move, sources within the NTRO said that there was a reason behind the delay. “For over a year now, we have been working on creating the right infrastructure for a base in northernChattisgarh. It is a location which suits the CRPF which had a problem with us flying solely out of Hyderabad. Today, it is possible to operate out of that base in a couple of months, which means your problem is largely solved,” said a source. If the spy agency is to be believed, it has re-shuffled its fleet of UAVs to ensure that the planes dedicated for anti-Naxal operations can be doubled by the end of the year.

Elaborating on the complexity of maintaining and operating UAVs, a senior officer mentioned, “To operate a full-fledged UAV, the set up required is quite daunting right from satellites, encryption experts, data analysts, controllers etc. Even the NTRO, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is struggling to find trained manpower which is why they are relying on the Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel on deputation to man their UAVs.”

NTRO, an officer said, had additional duties too apart from anti-Naxal issue. “We would be glad to be relieved of this as there are other missions that are suffering but we can’t help but feel that this will be a suicidal one.”

Major General (Retd) Dhruv Katoch, Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) mentioned, “I am all for providing the man of the ground with mini-UAVs which are of tactical use and can be carried by the troops. MHA should allow the CRPF to procure that. But beyond that, it is the NTRO which has the capability. The CRPF has little use investing in such high-tech systems.”

‘MHA’s acquisition is on-track’

Documents accessed show that the Home Secretary (HS) is firm on acquiring these assets. In a review meet held on December 21, 2012, RK Singh had in fact termed the UAVs as ‘inescapable need for anti-naxal operations.’ HS had further stressed that, ‘sufficient numbers of UAVs be acquired so that we are not dependent on others. These UAVs should be operated by the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) themselves.’ A senior officer on the condition of anonymity stated, “We are at an advanced stage of executing what the HS has told us to do.” Major General RK (Retd) RK Arora, Editor of the Indian Military Review (IMR), mentioned, “CRPF needs more than mini-UAVs. There are operations when you need to simply hover over an area and maintain a vigil. Thus a tactical UAV capability is a must.”

CRPF mini-UAV acquisition hits a road block

It was reliably learnt that under the HS’s order, the CRPF was trying to acquire two mini-UAVs Israeli-made Skylark. However, the defence Public Sector Undertaking (PSU), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which will import and assemble the mini-UAVs has quoted a very high figure above the import cost, causing the proposal to raise too many eyebrows.

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