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When the Rafale first flew in 1986 at the height of the second Cold War, pilots were an integral part of any aircraft while “drone" was a mere descriptive for a self-opinionated windbag who did not know when to stop talking. Today, the term “drone" conjures up images of state-of-the-art, unmanned aircraft being operated by “pilots" from the comfort of a base thousands of kilometres away from the battlefield and strikes terror even among the most battle-hardened veterans.

Drones refers to myriad of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) ranging from the diminutive unarmed four-and-a-half foot wingspan hand-tossed aircraft with a very limited range to the 116ft wingspan whale-like behemoth with a range of over 10,000km which can literally fly itself.

File photo of French Rafale fighter jet. AFP

According to Peter Singer, the director of the 21st century defence initiative at the Brookings Institution, drones are better suited than manned aircraft for three kinds of missions: dull (such as loitering for hours over the same terrain); dirty (such as flying over a nuclear accident or fallout site); and dangerous (such as operating over hostile enemy terrain with the risk of being shot down). Soon the next generation of drones will also be able to undertake the most hallowed of all-manned aircraft missions: dogfights (combat with enemy aircraft). This trend prompted even the venerable Economist to write an epitaph for the manned fighter.

While many countries have recognized the growing import of UAS and have incorporated them into their arsenals, the US alone has witnessed a 600% increase in the demand of unmanned missions in the past decade. As a result, last year the US trained more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. This trend is likely to continue as the number of manned squadrons are culled and replaced by a growing number of increasingly capable drones, including aircraft carrier-borne UAS which Washington plans to operate by 2013 to reassert its supremacy over China. The Pentagon has sought $5 billion from Congress for drones in 2012, and by 2020 under the unmanned system flight plan 2020-2047 it envisages spending 10 times that amount—around $55 billion.

Against this backdrop any air force that relies solely on manned aircraft will be able to achieve its strategic and tactical objectives only after expending a much higher cost in men, material and money. India is no exception to this emerging reality. In this context, the Rafale or any other manned aircraft, however capable they might be, will remain a product of a bygone era of air warfare, and will struggle to adopt to the new scenario, which will be increasingly dominated by unmanned drones. The need to acquire 126 aircraft provides a rare opportunity to create an innovative mix of manned and unmanned aircraft better suited to the emerging 21st century battlefield environment.

W.P.S.Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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