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India’s Secret Weapon to Outsmart China in Drone Tech

In September 2020, China showcased the use of drones for remote food delivery to troops, subtly highlighting their dual-purpose capabilities, which didn’t go unnoticed by India. On January 15, 2021, the Indian Army responded by demonstrating its drone-swarming capabilities with 75 locally developed drones used in simulated offensive missions.

Since then, India’s armed forces have made significant investments in technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Weapon Systems, Quantum Technologies, Robotics, Cloud Computing, and Algorithm warfare.

China has emerged as the world’s leading exporter of military drones, delivering 282 combat drones to 17 countries over the past decade, including nations like Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized the transformative potential of drones in warfare and committed to accelerating their development, solidifying China’s position as the global leader in combat drones.

This dominance is evident in Chinese components being used in drones deployed by Russia and Ukraine. DJI, based in Shenzhen, commands a 70 percent market share in small drone manufacturing.

The United States has initiated the Replicator program to compete with China by deploying thousands of autonomous systems across various domains within the next two years.

In 2022, the Indian government banned the use of Chinese components in Indian-made drones. While India may not match China’s combat drone numbers immediately, it’s taking steps to protect its interests. Critical drone components are still imported, and India needs to work on domestic production, similar to China.

India has implemented policies to support domestic drone manufacturers, allocating a substantial budget for military modernization in 2023-24, with a significant portion reserved for domestic industry.

The Indian Armed Forces are also collaborating with private companies. The Indian Air Force awarded a 3-billion-rupee contract to New Delhi-based startup Veda Defense System to produce 200 long-range swarm drones.

India is already grappling with asymmetric warfare as neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, employ drones for illicit activities. The ban on Chinese components may have posed challenges initially, but it has encouraged Indian private players to explore alternative supply chains.

Indian drone solutions provider Garuda Aerospace has formed partnerships with international companies, filling the void left by the Chinese DJI, which supplied drones for various purposes.

The U.S. and Indian Air Force signed an agreement in 2021 to jointly develop air-launched UAVs, fostering technological collaboration.

Experts believe that the ban on Chinese components will drive long-term growth in the sector, pushing India towards self-reliance.

To outpace China in the small drone sector, India needs greater civil-military integration and a roadmap for the civil sector to become self-reliant.

If India succeeds in this endeavor, it can establish partnerships with countries wary of purchasing drones from China.

There is a technological gap in the Indian drone industry, particularly in the larger drone segment. India relies on Israeli drones for its military needs in this category. However, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) is working on indigenous solutions, including the Rustom-2 UAV and weaponized versions.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) is also striving for global relevance with projects like the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) or ‘Loyal Wingman,’ expected to take flight by 2024.