Future is Unmanned

Indian armed forces plan to induct 5,000 UAVs in next 10 years

Mihir Paul

The Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have evolved from being primarily a surveillance and reconnaissance asset to hunter-killer roles. Over the years, UAVs have undergone a huge role expansion in employment with missiles being loaded on them to term them as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV). These can be used for targeting surface targets as also underwater submarines.

Rustom 2

UAVs are great force multipliers, and there must be synergy between the three services to optimise their employment. They could be employed for multifarious tasks fruitfully. Presently, the Indian armed forces have limited numbers of these aerial vehicles and each service is looking towards its individual requirement. In as much as the army is concerned, the Herons are performing exceedingly well in surveillance missions in high altitude regions as also providing critical information to manoeuvre elements in our Southern deserts.


India’s UAV History

India’s first acquisitions were the Israeli Searcher Mark 1 in 1998. It had its limitations in terms of altitude ceilings, endurance, duration it can be airborne, and weight it could carry.

India’s armed forces have been operating UAVs for over 18 years. The Indian Army were the pioneers followed by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and subsequently the Indian Navy. At the outset, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was tasked to produce a Catapult launched UAV which was developed by Aeronautical Developmental Establishment (ADE) Bengaluru and improved to meet user requirements. Most of the UAVs of the Indian armed forces were procured from IAI Malat, whose UAVs were in service with numerous countries.

The Indian Army initially obtained the Searcher Mark I, followed by the Searcher Mark II which could operate at an altitude ceiling of 15,000 ft and finally acquired the Heron which could operate at an altitude ceiling of 30,000ft.

The IAF immediately followed the army and acquired the Searcher Mark I followed by Searcher Mark II and acquired the Heron UAV prior to the Indian Army. The Indian Navy also acquired the Heron UAV which suited its long range off-shore requirement. Reports indicate that the IAF has lately acquired the Harop which is a UCAV.


Current Status of UAVs in India

Currently, the Indian armed forces have some 200+ Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Searcher and Heron UAVs of Israeli origin and a few HAROP UAVs recently inducted by the IAF.

Searcher, the smaller of the two is limited both in payload capacity (150 lbs) as well as operational ceiling of (20,000ft). However, with its abilities to stay aloft for up to 18 hours and carry a variety of sensors, it has rendered yeoman’s service along the Western borders and Indian shores. Heron, the larger of the two MALE UAVs is more versatile. With a take-off weight of 1,150 kg, it can carry a 250 kg payload of sensors, stay aloft up to 52 hours (depending on the chosen flight profile) and with operating ceiling of 32,000 ft, it has proven to be an extremely useful surveillance tool along the mountainous Northern borders.

The IAF is currently equipped with Searcher Mark II, Herons and in the process of inducting the UCAV Harop. The tasks visualised are Surveillance and destruction of selected targets by loitering missiles and PSDA. Searcher Mark II and Heron are similar to the systems held by the Indian Army while Harop is a loitering missile capable of seeking targets and destroying them with pin-point accuracy. Harop is also described as a self-destructive Killer-drone. Harop can be used in high density conflict and counter insurgency with 1000 km range and six hours endurance. It can be launched against land-based and sea-based targets. The drone loiters over the target area and attacks the targets, over which it undergoes self-destruction. The UCAV detects strong pulses from targets such as missiles, radars and hits at the source. It is possible to launch the Harop from ground, sea and air.

The Indian Army needs UCAVs for its battle requirements. The versatility of the UCAV has been demonstrated particularly in strikes against terrorist camps in Iraq and Afghanistan. India needs the UCAV particularly for operations near the Line of Control (LC) apart for surveillance missions.


Foreign Procurement and Indigenisation

Amongst the latest acquisitions that India is pursuing are the Predator C Avenger of General Atomics, USA, for the IAF. During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in 2017, the most important deal that the two sides signed was for 100 Predator Avengers. The Avengers incorporate stealth technology and can carry synthetic aperture radar. They are capable of flying with payloads of up to 1,400 to 1,600 kg and have an endurance of 16 to 20 hours. The jet powered model can fly up to 2,900 km and stay airborne for 18 hours. A deal for 22 Predators Guardian UAVs for the Indian Navy was also progressed during the PM’s visit. A game-changer according to some estimates, it will boost the Indian Navy’s surveillance capabilities enormously. The models Indians are looking at are unarmed. The estimated cost is anywhere between USD2 billion to USD3 billion.

The weapons on-board include bombs and missiles. The Americans insist on trained pilots of manned aircraft, flying these UCAVs. An odd F 16 squadron has been converted to UCAV squadron and fly the Predators now.

In late 2017, with objectives to maintain a strict vigil at the Pakistan and China border over terrorist activities, the Indian Army has accepted the tender inquiries for acquisition of 600 mini UAVs.

The army sources said the process of accepting tender inquiries was over and the technical assessment was under progress. A total of Rs 950 crore (USD145 million) was supposed to be incurred to procure the devices through ‘Buy Indian’ in an effort to give a boost to the government’s ambitious programme, ‘Make in India’.

From Israel, India’s dependable supplier of choice there is Heron TP, an upgraded version of Heron. Israel was inhibited in sale of this system because of its voluntary moratorium on selling dual use strategic assets to parties not signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Following India’s entry into MTCR in 2016, agreement has been reached for purchase of 10 Heron TPs.

The DRDO has been developing India’s very own Rustom UAV for quite a while now. Rustom 1, Rustom H and Rustom 2 comprise the Rustom family. They are MALE UAVs which would complement the Heron inventory of the Indian armed forces. Rustom 1 resembles Burt Rutan light aircraft design. It features a rear-mounted main wing appendages and a canard wing assembly at front. The power plant (Lycoming o-320) developing 150 hp is contained in the aft section of the fuselage and drives a two bladed propeller. Empty frame weighs 1,560 lbs and it can carry a payload up to 165 lbs. With a ceiling of 26,000ft, it could stay aloft for up to 12 hours.

Rustom H – the high altitude version. Although said to be belonging to the Rustom family, it bears little resemblance with Rustom 1. It is much larger at 4,000 lbs empty weight and its payload capacity at 770 lbs is also much greater. In appearance it has mid-set straight wings, a bulbous nose section and a retractable undercarriage. The tail unit is T shaped with a high mounted horizontal tail plane. Two NPO Saturn 36 MT turboprops developing 100 hp each drive three bladed propellers. Its range is estimated to be 625 miles and operating altitude 35,000 ft. Endurance could be of the order of 24 hours.

Rustom 2 (Redesignated Tapas 201). Similar in appearance to Rustom H, this fully featured combat capable UAV often draws comparison with American Predator. Its payloads include state-of-the-art ELINT and COMINT suites, Synthetic Aperture Radar and other medium and long-range electro optical sensors to capture imagery. It underwent successful testing in user configuration on 25 February 2018. The DRDO plans to produce 10 TAPAS 201 prototypes in order to fast track development work on all variants as requested by the three services. The Rustom models were initially to be fitted with Helina missiles, again a DRDO product. As it stands today, not one of these models have been inducted by the armed forces.

The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has also approved 598 mini UAVs for the infantry. These will be procured under the Buy Indian category of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2016 and give a boost to the private sector.

They will substantially enhance the situational awareness of battalion commanders and provide information of activities in the area five-seven km ahead of his position; a boon in combat situations.

With the currently ongoing modernisation initiative, the Indian armed forces plan to induct 5,000 UAVs over the next 10 years. UAVs’ roles have thus far been limited to surveillance and reconnaissance functions. Future inductions would undoubtedly enable plugging of the remaining loopholes and bolster these capabilities even further. In addition, armed UAVs would also almost certainly become a significant component of Indian military’s offensive capabilities which could be used with the latest UAVs India has been acquiring, especially from Israel and the United States.


The Future

Amongst technologies yet to be fully deployed are using multiple UAVs in a swarm. While there could be a few UAVs in the swarm that will be high end versions, the others will be cheaper but adequately equipped to follow the leader. The swarms will carry lethal payloads and will saturate enemy defences adequately for an attack to be successful. The Chinese have claimed the launch of the biggest swarm so far of 119 UAVs in June 2017.

The previous record was the American launch of 103 micro UAVs from three US Air Force Boeing F/A 18 aircraft in October 2016. Unmanned military platforms are an intrinsic part of today’s technology driven battlefield. Loitering missiles with payloads to destroy opportunity targets or pre-planned objectives are also available. These unmanned platforms are being tried as aerial, land and undersea platforms. Combined with artificial intelligence they will transform the future of battle.

Away from the battlefield, the civil Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) sector has been attracting record levels of investment and will see tremendous growth in the forthcoming years. Commercial use will surpass the consumer drone market by 2024, becoming the largest segment of the civil market. It will grow eightfold over the decade to reach USD7.3 billion in 2027.

According to a report published by Teal Group, firms in traditional aerospace, data analysis, semiconductors, and telecommunications are all driving aggressively into the civil market. Technology companies like Intel, Qualcomm, Microsoft, Apple as well as venture capitalists have poured more than USD500 million into start-up investments in 2017, a record level, and more than USD2 billion since 2012. The US start-ups have received 76 per cent of the funding, enabling them to take the lead in development of drone analytics. Chinese firms, which have received per cent of the investment, are focusing on continuing their lead in hardware, moving from consumer to commercial systems.


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