It was always going to happen. India has announced it is searching for vendors to sell it unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) equipped with precision weapons and satellite data links, according to Jane’s. The Indian Air Force is also going to induct 10 IAI/Malat Harop UAVs, worth about $100 million, in 2011. Harops are basically kamikaze drones, launched from ground or air, capable of loitering and then crashing into their target before blowing up. India already has 30 combat drones, but to my knowledge uses drones primarily for surveillance and targeting. Some of its 70 Searcher drones are now due to be upgraded to combat models.
This suggests combat drones are to play an increasingly role in killing Maoist insurgents, and that assassination is being embraced as a primary tactic. This may be objectionable on moral and legal grounds, but it is hardly new to Indian counterinsurgency – it seems likely that Maoist number three Azad was assassinated just last week. At least that was done at close range. The danger of shifting to the use of drones is the increased chance of collateral damage. The Maoists do not react well to assassinations, as we have seen with the retaliations of the past few days, and if security forces start blowing up weddings a la Afghanistan, then the rage at the heart of this struggle will only deepen.
At the same time, however, the Maoists are losing key figures at a precipitous rate (see this list). Unlike, for example, the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, the removal of top figures is likely to have a powerful impact on the Maoist movement, which relies on highly educated ideologues to articulate a relatively complex worldview and administrate a precarious and comprehensive shadow government. The fight in India is not just about attacking heretics and the state, but also implementing a thorough reorganisation of economic and social conditions, justified through a detailed reading of Marx, Lenin and Mao – not exactly a role that any old chancer can fulfil.
Assassination may effectively curtail violence and anti-state activity. But given the momentum of left-wing protest and violence in India in the past few years, the danger is that it may lead to a stupider, less organised movement. The threat of a decentralised insurgency was evident in the derailment of the Gyaneshwari Express in May that killed 148 civilians and seems likely to have been carried out by a group disconnected from the CPI-Maoist hierarchy.