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Bring on those drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles, either armed or unarmed, have become critical for the fight against the Maoists. Manish Tiwari reports.

delhi Updated: Sep 24, 2009 00:26 IST
Manish Tiwari

Ngashepam Manoranjan Singh, an assistant commandant of CoBRA, the elite anti-Naxal special unit, and his team members were caught off guard in the thick jungles of Dantewada, about 500 km south of Raipur in Chhattisgarh, when they came under heavy fire from a large Naxal group last week — soon after they had neutralized another group.

The terrain was hilly, thickly wooded and remote — it was 35 km from the nearest road. Singh’s bravery, and that of his men, could not save his life; or that of eight other commandos. This was the biggest loss (in a single mission) suffered by the commando unit of the Central Reserve Police Force, India’s largest paramilitary organization.

But unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called drones — which fly ahead of ground troops, shoot video and still pictures of what lies ahead, intercept radio and telephone communications and relay them to a laptop — could have forewarned them of the Maoist presence and saved their lives.

But future missions against Naxalites may be better equipped. The government is considering buying an unspecified number of such drones from European aerospace and defence equipment company EADS. Officers on the ground say the spy machines can keep them a step ahead of the ultras.

The issue has become all the more important as the government has launched a massive paramilitary operation to stamp out Red terror, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described several times as the greatest internal security challenge facing the nation. Naxals wield considerable influence in 223 of India’s 625 districts, Home Minister P. Chidambaram recently said. More than 400 security personnel have been killed fighting Naxals this year.

DIG Intelligence (Raipur) Pawan Deo, who is in charge of anti-Naxal operations in Chhattisgarh, said: “Drones can be very helpful in collecting data on Naxal movements (in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra) their hideouts and camps.”

Some UAVs, like the ones used by the US armed forces in Afghanistan to kill Pakistan Taliban chief Baitullah Masood and about 450 other terrorists, can even fire missiles and drop bombs with precision. It could not be ascertained which version the government is interested in.

But drones, either armed or unarmed, have become critical for the fight against the Maoists.

“Had the forces in Dantewada got intelligence inputs on the presence of the second Naxal group, they could have been able to coordinate their offensive accordingly,” said Ved Marwah, former Delhi police commissioner and an internal security expert.

Since most Naxalite bases are in inaccessible hilly terrains in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa, it is difficult to collect intelligence and track their movements. Drones can be very effective in such areas, a senior IPS officer who has served in Mayurbhanj, a Naxal-hit district in Orissa, said.

CRPF Director General A.S.. Gill told HT: “We’ve been able to penetrate deep inside the forest areas that are the strongholds of the Naxalites. But communications in these areas is a problem. We’re trying to address it.”

But not everyone is convinced about the effectiveness of drones.

Last year, the security forces used drones against Naxalites on an experimental basis in Bastar (a Naxalite stronghold in Chhattisgarh). It did help, but not to the extent desired..

“Such technology requires proper integration between the intelligence, administrative and operations arms of the security forces (which is not the case now). Unless that is done, they won’t be effective,” said a senior police officer who has served in Mayurbhanj, a Naxalite stronghold in Orissa.

But if the experience of the US forces in Afghanistan are anything to go by, UAVs, whether armed or not, can be extremely effective if used properly.

The government is, meanwhile, planning to use images collected by Indian Space Research Organisation and Indian Air Force fighter jets to help security forces launch surgical strikes against the Maoists.