India’s eye in the sky: combat drones in the Kashmiri equation

By: Gen Kawasaki and Chu Kah Leong

A Predator C Avenger Unmanned Aircraft System (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor/Released)
A Predator-C Avenger Unmanned Aircraft System (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor/Released)

The use of drones as a sophisticated means of deterrence and tactical precision has constituted one of the most prominent features of counterinsurgency in the twenty-first century. Represented in this instance by India’s ongoing negotiations for a drone partnership with the U.S., this newfound interest sheds important light on the changing means and ends of counterinsurgency and political violence within the already tenuous cords of Kashmiri security.[1]

Historically, India has proven itself as a seasoned practitioner of conventional force to achieve strategic goals in Kashmir. Military responses to Kashmiri insurgent movements since the 1980s – culminating in tens of thousands of casualties thus far – testify to the readiness to absorb the attendant repercussions of unrestrained political violence.[2] Viewed in unison with the newly formulated Cold Start doctrine, with its emphasis on tactical flexibility, the time remains early for the introduction of an attack medium that is both ubiquitous and efficient.[3] The role of drones as a selective yet no less brutal means of violence thus gains fresh relevance particularly in the wake of the devastating Uri attacks.[4]

On a broad note, a considerably strengthened Indian drone fleet is likely to contribute to stronger Pakistani responses in future disputes. While a surveillance drone deal will likely shift the India-Pakistan balance of power, New Delhi’s endgame is to obtain the Predator-C Avenger armed with Hellfire missiles – which would enable India to conduct pre-emptive, cross-border strikes along its porous borders against potential terrorist threats.[5] Acquiring such a capability would fit within the strategic boundaries established in the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1990 . The act legally justifies any ‘use of armed forces’, including that of drones, in territories explicitly classified as ‘disturbed areas’, which is the case of Kashmir.[6]

It is therefore not a stretch to conceptualize the deployment of drones – both lethal and nonlethal – to enforce Kashmiri security, albeit without the regulatory oversight of courts and legislative committees that actively work to define the parameters of drone activity. Coupled with evidence of Pakistani complicity in the Kashmiri insurgency movement,[7] what transpires is a drone platform that may exacerbate the already tenuous strains of low-intensity conflict in the region. Denoted by periodic exchanges of armed violence and border clashes, it remains an unsettling yet imperative task to ponder the dire consequence of an ill-informed drone strike mission – say, a missile that was launched on a location populated both by the suspected target as well as large numbers of civilians. Indian policymakers attracted to the tactical precision of drones will eventually have to be prepared to absorb the attendant strategic perils in an already confrontational atmosphere.

This drone push comes as President Obama wishes to finalize a key facet of US-Indian military cooperation before his successor assumes office. A key challenge, however, is that drones in the Line of Control – the de facto military control line between India and Pakistan – merely adds fuel to the fire. Operator proficiency, which is far from guaranteed, could result in collateral damage or even in-flight crashes. Such incidents, which would likely spark an overreaction from Pakistan, would test the resilience of U.S.-Indian military cooperation but would also open up further discussions for other possible bilateral defense programs.

Concurrently, whilst India’s recent entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) has broadened existing avenues of military technology transfers, it still finds itself in a slight predicament.[8] New Delhi has long been reluctant to sign the accordant foundation agreements, consisting of the LSA (Logistical Support Agreement – currently LEMOA, a diluted version has been ratified), CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement). While they are not prerequisites for bilateral cooperation with the U.S., they nevertheless expedite rates of interoperability and technology transfers, speeding up drone acquisitions in the process.

There remain a number of additional concerns regarding merits of signing these agreements. Firstly, the LSA requires India to provide access to its bases for U.S. Military Transporters – meaning that it would be compelled to forgo neutrality and strategic autonomy completely in the geopolitical frictions between the U.S. and China. Secondly, BECA would afford the U.S. unrestricted access to Indian intelligence reports and battlefield satellite data imagery whilst CISMOA forbids all Indian personnel from utilizing U.S. military communication devices. In the wake of such crucial diplomatic talks, many Indians have been increasingly concerned over how willing their government is to accept such lopsided and intrusive agreements.

With recently escalating tensions, the Indo-Pakistani dilemma remains crucial for both regional and international hegemons. The 2008 Mumbai attacks, which occurred weeks after the U.S. presidential elections, had dragged the international community into fierce multilateral negotiations to de-escalate the situation. With this in mind, India and its allies must carefully tread their bilateral drone programs as it is sure to have serious implications in the geopolitical future of the region.

Gen Kawasaki is a third year undergraduate at King’s College London. He is the researcher and coordinator for the King’s College London Crisis Simulation that will replicate tensions in the India-Pakistan region this year. LinkedIn: Gen Kawasaki

Chu Kah Leong is a third year undergraduate in the King’s War Studies Department. He recently concluded a year long exchange program in Tokyo, Japan and aspires towards graduate studies in the near future.


[1] Sanjeev Miglani. “Update 1-India in talks to buy US Predator drones, has eye on China, Pakistan” Reuters, April 8, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2016.

[2] Kaz De Jong, Nathan Ford, Saskia van de Kam, Kamalini Lokuge, Silke From, Renate van Galen, Brigg Reilley and Rolf Kleber, “Conflict in the Indian Kashmir Valley I: exposure to violence”, Conflict and Health 2:10 (2008), 2.

[3] Abishek Saksena, “Here’s Why the Indian Army’s New War Doctrine ‘Cold Start’ Is Giving Jitters to the World”, India Times (22 April 2015), accessed 6 October 2016. cold-start-is-giving-pakistan-the-jitters-232034.html

[4] Muhammad Daim Fazil, “Responding to Uri Attack: What Are India’s Options?”, The Diplomat (29 September 2016), accessed 8 October 2016.

[5] Sanjeev Miglani. “India in talks to buy U.S. Predator drones, has eye on CHina, Pakistan” Reuters, April 11 2016. Accessed September 24, 2016.

[6] Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, 1990 (No. 21 of 1990), Sec. 3.

[7] PTI, “Pakistan Role Behind Violent Protests in Kashmir: MoS PMO”, The Times of India, 11 July 2016, accessed 6 October 2016. ow/53157261.cms

[8] LDWO, Missile Technology Control Regime. “Report by the MTCR Chair: accession of India to the MTCR” MTCR, June 27, 2016. Accessed September 18, 2016.

Image credit: Public domain photograph from, available at

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