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Trading  | December 7, 2017

Reuters said the Chinese have expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with India over the recent crash of an Indian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Chinese territory.

The Indian Army’s official statement has said the UAV was on a training mission and lost contact across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Sikkim area.

According to Republic World, an Indian English-language media outlet,

The defense ministry said the Indian border security personnel, as per standard protocol, immediately alerted their Chinese counterparts to locate the UAV and they later reverted with its location.


“An Indian UAV which was on a regular training mission inside the Indian territory lost contact with the ground control due to some technical problem and crossed over (to) the LAC in the Sikkim Sector,” the defense ministry said in a statement.  

On the other hand, China’s defense ministry said in a statement the Indian UAV had crashed in “recent days” but the ministry did not give specifics..

Zhang Shuili, a military official in China’s western battle zone command, said in the ministry statement, “This action by India violated China’s territorial sovereignty. We express strong dissatisfaction and opposition.”

China and India have had deep distrust over their disputed border, which triggered a military conflict in 1962. Just recently, both sides confronted each other between the June and August timeframe this year- at one instance an all-out brawl was caught on video as troops battled each other on the heavily contested border (see: Video Emerges Showing Clashes Between Indian, Chinese Soldiers).

While details are still murky, it is believed the downed drone could have been a Searcher Mk II or a Heron – both imported from Israel. In April, India received its first Heron TP-armed drones from Isreal, giving the country the capability to carry out cross-border strikes.

Avm Manhoan Bahadur, editor of India’s The Print, explains here are four reasons why this loss is worrisome, irrespective of the type of the UAV, 

First: it is the loss of an aviation asset that is difficult to come by. The Heron/Searcher is imported from Israel and to get a new bird as a replacement would take years to process in our bureaucratic maze.


Second: while we would be one UAV less, it is the loss of a reconnaissance capability that would hurt operationally. A UAV, especially of the Heron class, brings with it high altitude transit and reconnaissance capability, which is vital in our northern borders. Flying inside national airspace, the payloads carried by the Heron can look across the border without the adversary realising that it is being snooped on; it would paint as a blip on his radar without him able to do anything about it. The closer the flight path is to the border, and if across, better is the quality of information that would be available.


Third: if it has fallen into unwanted hands, it is really worrisome. The Chinese would surely strip the payload for its technology and improve their own.


It is a well-known fact that Israeli electronics are one of the best in the world, while those of China are not. Even though Israel would not have sold their latest version of the payload to India, it would be safe to assume that the Chinese engineers would be eager to get a hand on the electronics.


The Chinese are known to aggressively pursue getting hold of western technology. They reportedly got hold of the electronics and stealth data of the F-117 shot down in March 1999 during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. There are reports they had a look at the American Special Forces H-60 stealth Blackhawk helicopter that crashed during the Osama bin Laden raid in Abbottabad. 

Bahadur asks the difficult question, was the UAV shot down? If so, tensions are about to heat up on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Sikkim area.

Last, but most importantly, why did the ground control lose command of the UAV? If it was a link loss, then the UAV would have come back on its own due to the safety feature of ‘get back home’ logarithms that kick-in. So, if that did not happen, was it shot down from ground or by a Chinese aviation asset – fighter or helicopter? If yes, it would imply that its position was compromised by a radar/acoustic or visual signature – all things that the court of inquiry would be looking into (incidentally, an IAF Searcher was lost to a Pakistani F-16 in 2002 across Amritsar).


If this was not the case, was the control taken over by spoofing of the radio link by the Chinese, as was supposedly done by Iran’s ‘cyber warfare units’ on 4 December 2011 when an American RQ-170 Sentinel UAV was recovered by them in a fairly undamaged condition? If this was the case, it would be a very serious occurrence, as we would have to revamp and overhaul UAV SOPs for operations near the border, as also look at the electronic warfare susceptibility of the UAVs with us.


The most re-assuring news (if that can be called as such) would be that the UAV had some technical defect, like an engine fault, which made it lose height and make it unrecoverable or return home in the automatic mode. Or that it crashed so hard that its electronics were totally destroyed on impact. But that would be wishful thinking.


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