Flights of Fancy

The rigidity of SQRs should be relaxed so as to facilitate fast procurements and development of weapon systems

Dilip Kumar Mekala

At the recently organised India Today Conclave 2015, defence minister Manohar Parrikar described service requirements – for the development of indigenous weapons systems – as something straight out of ‘Marvel comic books’. He indicated that the general service qualitative requirements (GSQR) are unrealistic when it comes to the demands and the timeframes. Also, constant changes in the service requirements make it even more difficult for the defence public sector units and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to produce satisfatory results in weapons manufacturing.

Eyes in the sky Reliance Group & Saab partnered recently to produce a UAV. Saab has been active in promoting its Skeldar UAS (shown above) in India
Eyes in the sky Reliance Group & Saab partnered recently to produce a UAV. Saab has been active in promoting its Skeldar UAS (shown above) in India

For the defence forces, on the other hand, one of the biggest challenges in procurements via Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), is the rigidity of the service qualitative requirements (SQR). Former deputy chief of air staff, Air Marshal N.V. Tyagi (retd), at a conference few months back, said that the rigidity of SQR proved to be disadvantageous to the buyer as things change over time. Especially, when the procurements take a long time to fructify, the services end up with an outdated product.

In the case of high technology systems like the unmanned aerial systems (UAS), there has to be a clear balance between service requirements and manufacturing abilities, as that would ensure indigenous products without compromising on the quality.

DRDO’s projects, for example, haven’t seen much success in the high-end UAVs. Even older projects like Nishant and Rustom had some serious problems during the design and development phases. DRDO had undertaken a project for the development of flight rotary engine to power Nishant UAV long back. Even after the successful development of technology for rotary engines, no staff project was undertaken. The project was closed in 2009 with no end use of the engine.

In this situation, could the private sector company come to the rescue? Recently, a news report pointed at the possible partnership of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group and Swedish defence company, Saab, to jointly produce unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). While the partnership is currently focussed more on the maritime UAV, an immediate requirement for the Indian Navy, the chances are this partnership will address future UAV requirements of all the Indian forces as well. Interestingly, Saab has been active in promoting its Skeldar UAS for a long time n India. Various presentations were already made at major events like DefExpo and Aero India.

Saab’s vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAS Skeldar is a new generation, fully autonomous and mobile, short-to-medium range system. Skeldar is suitable for a wide range of sensor applications to perform missions such as reconnaissance, surveillance and identification. It is available for land, maritime as well as for civil applications. The Skeldar UAS fly automatic/autonomous on a pre-programmed mission but can be controlled from the ground control station with high level commands if needed. “The control station has an easy-to-use man-machine interface and is designed for easy integration with other hardware platforms or C2 systems. During missions, the Skeldar platform receive and transmit relevant data in real-time via a secure data-link,” said a statement from Saab.

At Aero India 2015 various international and Indian companies participated to showcase their UAS. Israel’s Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and India’s Alpha Design Technologies have planning to set up an Indian production line for IAI’s BirdEye mini UAV. Lockheed Martin showcased its Fury 1500 long endurance, survivable unmanned aircraft. Further, Indian companies like Tata Power SED and OIS-AT and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) also showcased their indigenous UAV designs.

After US President Barak Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, there was an interest from both the countries to increase defence trade. One of the initiatives suggested by the US was the finalisation of a pilot project involving UAV. The UAV project involved the RQ-11 ‘Raven’ built by a US company, AeroVironment. Raven is one of the most popular light weight UAV, which can be launched manually by the soldiers. According to AeroVironment, Raven is a light-weight solution designed for rapid deployment and high mobility for military applications requiring low-altitude surveillance and reconnaissance intelligence. It could enhance the tactical surveillance capabilities of India in both eastern and the western sector immensely.

In the area of UAV technology, there was another proposal for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to purchase Harop Loitering Munitions System from IAI. The proposal has been delayed for years now. At Aero India 2015, IAI had highlighted Harop UAV with a scaled model at their outdoor display. Harop unmanned vehicle can be launched from various platforms and because of its long endurance, it can be functioned primarily in the tactical battle areas. This loitering UAV with a high quality day/ night electro-optic seeker can search, detect and attack accurately high value static or mobile targets. It can perform man-in-the-loop attack avoiding collateral damage. It is also equipped with FLIR/ colour CCD electro-optical seeker which gives hemispherical coverage to the UAV.

At present, the IAF and the Indian Army operate Israeli Searcher tactical UAV and Heron (MALE) UAVs. The Indian Navy has also commissioned its UAV squadron which operates Heron and Searcher MK II vehicles. DRDO has also come up with its tactical UAV design named Rustom, which was showcased publicly at DefExpo 2014 for the first time. Rustom will be in the category of 1,100-1,300 Kg UAV, with a similar design as Israeli Heron/ Predator class of MALE UAVs. According to DRDO, it has a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet and the range of 300 km.

Further, a stealth project by DRDO called AURA – an unmanned combat aerial vehicle – being designed for the IAF. Although the design and details have been kept a closely guarded secret, some of the optimistic estimations claim that it can make its first flight by the end of 2015 and enter into service by 2017. But given DRDO’s history of delays, a realistic estimate would be to assume that it will enter into service by 2019-2020.

The rigidity of SQRs should be relaxed so as to facilitate fast procurements and development of weapon systemsIn December 2014, DRDO carried out the maiden flight of Panchi, the wheeled version of UAV Nishant capable of taking-off and landing, using small airstrips. DRDO said that the maiden flight was preceded by a series of high speed taxi trials. The UAV Panchi has all the surveillance capabilities of UAV Nishant. However, it will have longer endurance as it does not have to carry the air bags and parachute system as in the case of UAV Nishant. Distinguished scientist at DRDO, K Tamilmani said, “Aggressive efforts by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) team during the past eight months in creating this version are commendable”. DRDO showcased Panchi at Aero India 2015.

The conventional Nishant UAV, already inducted in the army, is a multi-mission UAV with day/night operational capability, launched from an all-terrain hydro-pneumatic launcher and is recovered with the help of on-board parachute system and an underbelly airbag. It is designed for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance, target tracking and localisation, and artillery fire correction. The electro-optic payloads are mounted on a stabilised steerable platform. A sophisticated image processing system is used for analysing the images transmitted from the UAV. The aircraft has a jam resistant command link and digital down link for transmission of imagery. The air vehicle has autonomous flight capabilities and is controlled from a user friendly ground control station.

Ministry of home affairs (MHA) had also planned to deploy UAVs for border surveillance operations. However, since there was a lack of policies from the MHA on how to deploy these devices, the decisions ran into trouble. The policies are currently being formulated for UAV deployment.
When asked why new set policies are being formulated for UAVs, Anil Kumar, IG, BSF (provisioning) explained, “Certain clearances have to be taken from the IAF.” The clearances that Kumar was talking about, apparently, were not entirely feasible with the Border Security Force’s (BSF) border surveillance plans. If the IAF’s guidelines were to be followed, the BSF would not be able to deploy the UAVs on a 24-hour basis. So, the BSF had sent their comments to the MHA, which in turn, is coordinating with the ministry of defence (MoD), and awaiting their response. Once the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is finalised regarding the use of the UAVs, only then the procurement will move forward.

“Requirement for the UAV has already been approved in the procurement plan. We are only awaiting the response and the SOP for the use of UAV,” he added. Once all these issues are sorted out, the BSF plans to induct the UAVs in both eastern and western sectors, especially in the Jammu frontier. “It is operationally a force multiplier. We have sufficient manpower on the border but we want to extend our capabilities with technology,” he stated.

Further, IG Kumar has assured that MHA is in the final stages of finalising the policy for the UAVs. But this programme is unlikely to be a global tender as there are many Indian products by DRDO that can fulfil the needs of the BSF. Netra, the mini UAV for example, is already inducted in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and National Security Guards (NSG).