Indian Army’s UAV crashes in Tibet, China protests ‘air intrusion’

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of the Indian Army, with advanced electro-optical sensors and cameras for surveillance and intelligence-gathering, crashed in Tibet across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) from northern Sikkim, leading China to express “strong dissatisfaction” over the “air intrusion” into its territory.

Sources said the UAV was a medium-altitude, long endurance Heron drone, which is capable of flying for well over 24 hours at heights over 32,000 feet as well as target acquisition and artillery adjustment, acquired from Israel a few years ago.

The heavy-duty drone, built like an aircraft, was being flown to keep tabs on Chinese troops along the LAC when it lost contact with the ground control base due to a technical problem.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will no doubt minutely examine the crashed drone to ascertain its intelligence-gathering capabilities. Though the Army, IAF and Navy have earlier lost Heron drones, each of which comes for over Rs 60 crore, this is the first cross-border crash.

The crash comes amid Indian and Chinese militaries continuing to maintain higher force-levels in the region, with additional troops, tanks, artillery and other weapons, despite disengaging from the tense 73-day-long troop face-off at Doklam near the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction on August 28, as earlier reported by TOI.

Army spokesperson Colonel Aman Anand on Thursday said Indian troops “immediately alerted their Chinese counterparts” about the crash of the UAV, which was on “a regular training mission”, in keeping with “standard protocol” between the two countries.

“In response, the Chinese side reverted with the location details of the UAV. The exact cause of the incident is under investigation. The matter is being dealt with in accordance with established protocols through institutional mechanisms to deal with situations along the India-China border areas,” Anand said.

The statement came within hours of China accusing India of violating its airspace. “The Indian move violated China’s territorial sovereignty. We strongly express our dissatisfaction and opposition,” said Zhang Shuili, deputy director of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) combat bureau.

“We will earnestly fulfil our mission of duty and firmly defend the sovereignty and security of our country,” Zhang said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang added, “Recently, an Indian UAV invaded China’s airspace and crashed in the Sikkim section of China-India border.” Chinese border troops had taken a “professional and responsible attitude” to verify the device, he said.

The Chinese protest comes ahead of the December 11 meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) foreign ministers meeting in New Delhi, which will be attended by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi.

China has reorganised its 2.3-million PLA into five theatre commands to crank up its offensive capabilities. Its WTC now handles the entire 4,057-km LAC with India instead of the earlier Chengdu Military Region in the east and the Lanzhou Military Region towards the north.

After the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan, the Indian armed forces have slowly but steadily acquired a large fleet of Israeli drones like Searchers and Herons, apart from some indigenously-developed UAVs.

With an eye on China, the Army has also established new UAV bases in the north-east in places like Kumbhigram and Lilabari in Assam. IAF, in turn, have inducted additional Israeli Harop ‘killer’ drones equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over high-value military targets before exploding into them. The force has also experimented with “add-ons or attachments” to its existing fleet of Israeli Heron and Searcher-II surveillance drones to add a killer role to them.