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IAF Makes Early Pitch for Manning Armed Drones, Strategic Systems

Image Courtesy IAI

The WS Branch will give the IAF primacy in management of strategic armed UAVs and aero space assets in the future in the scenario of interservice rivalry as more unmanned assets will be invariably acquired in the years ahead – either indigenous or bought off the shelf.

On October 08, the Ministry of Defence through a Press release announced establishment of a new branch of the Indian Air Force (IAF) called the Weapon Systems (WS) branch.

The WS branch will comprise of all weapon system operators, “under one entity which is dedicated to the operational employment of all ground-based and specialist airborne weapon systems”.

The WS branch encompasses four specialised streams of Surface-to-Surface missiles, Surface-to-Air missiles, Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Weapon System Operators in twin/multi-crew aircraft.

The aim is said to be to enhance, “the war fighting capability of the Indian Air Force”.

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Choudhari also indicated considerable savings accruing from the creation of WS Branch. “Creation of this branch would result in savings of over Rs 3,400 crore due to reduced expenditure on flying training,” he added.

IAF Branches and Addition

Presently the IAF has the flying branch, engineers, administration, accounts, logistics, meteorology and education.

Apart from the flying branch other branches are mainly for support and logistics functions though these are important.

The WS Branch is closely linked to the Flying Branch and thus will contribute to increasing the fighting potential of the Indian Air Force.

Specialization is expected to be achieved in this sphere which requires greater attention with induction of new systems such as drones, swarm drones, hypersonic weapons, and space-based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR )systems which has added a new dimension to war fighting as per the IAF Chief Vivek Ram Chaudhari speaking at the IAF Day parade in Chandigarh.

While these would be operating in their separate unit’s facilitation in the form of training and operational maintenance of the systems is expected as a centralized effort.

More About WS Branch

The WS branch will have four sub branches – Flying, Surface Systems that is air defence missiles and guns and Remote or UAVs, Intelligence.

The last two are a function of unmanned systems and the IAF is looking for consolidation in this sphere.

The flying subbranch officers on the other hand will operate weapons on Su-30 MKI, the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), Apache AH-64E, and Mi -25/35 or the Hind. Any future acquisition of a strategic bomber will include officers from this stream who will now be well prepared for this purpose.

The Intelligence stream will combine the expertise of acquisition of information through IAF surveillance assets including drones, signals and electronics systems as well as space assets.

The Surface stream assumes importance in the wake of acquisition of S-400 air defence system from Russia with increasing necessity for specialisation as highly sophisticated systems as NASAMS - Konsberg and Raytheon manufactured air and missile defence system cleared for acquisition by the United States Defence Security Cooperation Agency [DSCA].

Drone as a Specialised Sub Branch

Operation of drones has emerged as a specialised field which appears to be one of the areas of focus of creating the WS Branch.

A large number and wide variety of UAVs are inevitable including the armed versions were employed, providing a greater understanding of their employment in the future in the ongoing Ukraine War.

Indian armed forces drones are distributed across the three services – Army, Navy and the Air Force. There is no published policy on employment of drones that is available in the open domain in the armed forces.

Unlike the United States where President Joe Biden is reported to have signed a policy to limit use of drone strikes in operations other than conventional wars recently as indicated by the New York Times, India does not have a policy for use of armed UAVs.

Thus, apparently the control of UAVs appears to be the function of the service that has acquired the drones.

Drones are also being acquired based on the emergency powers that have been provided to the Vice Chiefs equivalent of the services. The Navy and IAF has acquired drones essentially reconnaissance and surveillance based on emergency powers.

While there was a possible division in the responsibility of operation of drones is based on the altitude with the IAF operating MALE and HALE drones. But at present some of the MALE drones are also being operated by the other services.

Thus, unless the armed forces drone policy is well known and accepted, the challenge will remain.

Given this understanding the IAF which has the largest number of drones of the three services and has also acquired some UCAVs, there is a possibility that a pitch is being made to lead the strategic asset in the future and may form the Aero Space Command of which the IAF Chief Vivek Ram Chaudhari talked about in his pre Air Force Day media interaction on October 04, 2022.


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