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As Pakistan, China Build fleets, India Looks To Israel For Drones

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle.

India has fast-tracked its plans to purchase drones from Israel that would allow for military strikes abroad without risking the lives of military personnel.

Several weeks ago, neighboring Pakistan revealed that it was using combat drones to fight militants within its borders. Observers note the potential for a new front between Pakistan and India in their standoff over the disputed territory of Kashmir – a standoff that has twice before brinked into war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

India first made plans to acquire a series of Israeli Herons three years ago, but defense industry sources say the military made a request this past January to speed up the process. The move came at a time when Pakistan and China were honing their programs for drone warfare.

Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already used for surveillance by India in Kashmir's rugged mountains as well as along the disputed border with China.

An air force official reportedly said that the Indian government approved this month and was expected to confirm the air force's request to buy 10 Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries -- drones that are capable of engaging targets on the ground.

The deal is estimated at $400 million. The Indian Defense Ministry declined to comment.

The Pakistani and Indian armies periodically exchange fire across the de facto Kashmir border but do not cross the Line of Control.

"It's risky, but armed UAVs can be used for counterinsurgency operations internally as well across the borders -- sneak attacks on terrorist hideouts in mountainous terrain, perhaps," said an army officer in the defense planning staff.

The armed Israeli Herons, slated to be in use by late 2016, would give the air force the ability to conduct deep strikes, according to Gurmeet Kanwal, former head of the government-funded Centre for Land Warfare Studies in New Delhi.

The use of drones in the region has come under fire both at home and abroad. For instance, despite publicly distancing itself from them, Pakistan has allowed the United States to conduct hundreds of drone strikes within the country in the hunt for Al-Qaeda and other militants. Meanwhile, Pakistan is likely to immediately shoot down any Indian drone in sight, concurred Kanwal and the army officer.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading weapons proliferation expert in Pakistan, says India and Pakistan would need to be able to deny their use of armed drones across the border.

"It is likely that drones would be used in a surreptitious mode close to the LoC, far away from populated areas," he said.

In July, the Pakistani Army reported it had shot down an Indian spy drone in Kashmir. India did not comment.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia specialist at the Washington D.C.­based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the presence of lethal drones could heighten mutual suspicion at a time when ties are strained in the region.

"Pakistan might worry that India could use an armed drone to attack terrorist safe havens in Pakistan or to target a specific terrorist there, and India might worry that Pakistan will now be tempted to add drones to its repertoire of asymmetric warfare tactics it has used against India."

Currently, more than 70 countries worldwide have UAVs with surveillance capabilities, but only three -- the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom -- are known to have used armed drones in combat.

China has invested considerable resources into UAVs but military experts maintain that its combat drones still lag far behind those made in Israel.

It remains unclear what types of weapons the Heron TPs that India hopes to buy would feature.

David Harari, a retired IAI engineer and Israel Prize winner for his pioneering work in drone development, said India could mount its own weaponry on an Israeli supplied drone, helped by close technological cooperation between the two countries.

Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani for Reuters