The recent drone-strike on Saudi oil installations emanating from Yemen that significantly crippled the Kingdom's energy exports was portended changes in the nature of future warfare. For the fraction of the cost of a conventional military attack, the enemy was able to wreak havoc in a way that was inconceivable even some years ago. This has brought to the fore a new phenomenon in war-fighting, an entry-point of the use of 'Artificial Intelligence' in the battle-field with enormous theoretical and practical consequences. This essay will examine the interests, production and capabilities of key regional powers in this regard; India, China and Pakistan.

India has been making some sophisticated procurements of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), also known as drones, particularly from the United States. During a 2017 visit to the US, Prime minister Narendra Modi clinched a deal for the purchase of 22 Predator Guardian drones, desired by the Indian Navy, which is a force multiplier to advance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. This particular variant of Predator B is said to be able to stay in the air for 27 hours and fly at an altitude of 50,000 feet, giving it the capacity to cover a very wide area not just over the Indian Ocean , but also over territory of any perceived adversaries including China. The Indians would have actually preferred a version called MQ-9 Reaper, which are capable of firing missiles at enemy targets, and thereafter, returning home to bases. The main difference between a predator and a Reaper is that the latter is larger in size, and is seen as a "hunter-killer" , carrying significant more ordnance. Nonetheless, the Indian purchases would be useful in tracking submarines. Israel is also an important source of purchase for India.

Apart from external procurements, India is also boosting domestic manufacturing capacity. A milestone was the flight-testing of Rustam 2 prototype, re-designated as Tapas 201.It is slow with a maximum speed of 225 metres per hour, but can fly for 24 hours with the ability to operate at an altitude of 35000 feet. Indian armed forces have an ambitious plan to induct 200 armament capable drones over the next half decade. 9 all drones are not armament capable). Indian firms like Tata Advanced Systems Ltd, reliance Defence, and L and T Heavy Engineering are the key manufacturers.

Within a month of the Modi-US accord in July 2017, China flight-tested the latest drone of its Calihone series, the CH-5. Also known as the "Rainbow'(in English) , its capabilities are much greater than what China already manufactures and markets, the CH-3 and CH-4. Its manufacturing company is the China Academy of Aerospace Dynamics, the country's largest drone exporter. The CH-5, twice as large as other craft of the family, can stay in air for 60 hours, has a range of 10,000 kilometres, with a weapon payload capacity of one metric ton. It can carry 24 missiles on a single mission, sufficient to take out a convoy of armoured vehicles. The earlier model CH-4, can carry around 500 pounds of ordnance and fly around 1200 kilometres. The yet smaller CH-3 has the capacity to carry 150 pounds of payload, including at least one AR-1 laser-guided missile comparable to the AGM-114 Hell-Fire missile of US drones.

While the price-tag of a CH-5 unit is not yet known , it is presumed to be far less than that of comparable US models(MQ-9 Reaper?). The earlier Chinese models are said to cost one million dollars apiece,a quarter of that of US Predators. Till recently American sources mention that the following queuing up to buy from China : Pakistan (over 20 units), Egypt (over 18 units), Myanmar (over 12 units), Nigeria (5 units), Iraq (4 units), and Jordan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and the UAE (2 units each). These figures predate the successful CH-5 flight test, and would be expected to lead to a spike in sales.

Pakistan announced its first fleet of indigenously developed surveillance-capable drones as far back in November 2012, called 'Barraq' and 'Shahpar'. They described the inducting of these into their forces as "a landmark event, wherein a very effective force multiplier has been added to their inventory". Thereafter in September 2015 its military fired, for the first time, a laser-guided air-to-surface missile "Barq" from a 'Barraq' drone in a live-battle operation. Pakistan is also likely to always remain a key purchaser from China, and would doubtless be interested in the latest CH-5 as well.

As drones proliferate, there arise significant theoretical ramifications for war-fighting. The use of nuclear weapons in war is said to be prevented by the operation of the theory of deterrence. It implied dissuading an adversary from taking action by signalling a most unacceptably destructive response. The US and Russia have maintained nuclear arsenals for decades to prevent each other from using them. Bernard Brodie, a pioneer nuclear strategic thinker, argued that such weapons must always be at the ready but never used. The drones are different. While at the strategic or long-range nuclear-weapon levels, weapon-systems may deter one another, drones, whatever their sophistication and travel-range are at best tactical weapons. They are precise, and by definition would cause less collateral damage and hence would not be covered by the taboo surrounding a nuclear device or a weapon of mass-destruction(WMD). Furthermore, since they are unlikely to attract unacceptable level of retaliation as a nuclear bomb or WMD would, the propensity to use them first would be greater. Acquisition of drones would therefore be for actual use and not deterrence. Moreover, the first user would have an advantage. They are so far cheaper and have potentials for eroding the superior balance of the stronger side significantly. Hence the race for manufacture, acquisition, export , deployment and the use of drones is likely to grow.

Unlike in the case of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 or the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, drones are not specifically covered by any global agreements. There is of course the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR) that dates back to 1987, but it was crafted with cruise missiles in mind, and would not dent the interest in drones. Towards the end of the Obama Administration in the US, there was a declaration by over 40 countries, to discourage, under US aegis, the use and export of armed drones. The Trump Administration, like on all other Obama initiatives, has dithered on it. So, UAVs or drones have now become a way of life. It may , indeed perhaps will, become at some point an important subject of arms control discourse. But right now, most fighting forces, including and in particular weaker ones are jostling with one another to reduce their vulnerabilities to add this particular capability to their arsenals.

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