Future of Sea Power

The Indian Navy can no longer ignore the strategic importance of unmanned naval systems

Atul Kumar

Unmanned military systems have been around for over a century. In recent years, newer upgraded versions have entered the market, making them the future solutions for all dimensions of warfare -- aerial, land and sea. They are being developed for both conventional as well as strategic purposes.

US Navy’s Sea Guardian drone

In addition to airborne and land forces, unmanned systems are now slowly becoming an integral part of naval forces across the world. For now, several types of unmanned naval systems including airborne, surface vessels and autonomous underwater vehicles suited with a combination of advanced naval sensing equipment and arms are being used by a handful of advanced navies to carry out a wide range of naval duties including key naval intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), early warning, gunship guidance, manoeuvre control, target detection, security, anti-ship and anti-submarine missions.

To monitor the ocean and other national assets, unmanned systems are becoming a vital solution for international maritime forces. Similarly, in order to stimulate maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Navy has focused on acquiring these systems and exploring both indigenous as well as foreign options. In previous years, the navy often expressed the need for various types of unmanned naval systems comprising unmanned aerial systems (both fixed-wing and rotary), unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the most crucial systems in this segment, modernised with a wide range of combinations of payloads including high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar, EO/IR systems, ELINT, SIGINT and situational awareness systems, anti-surface and anti-ship munitions. The US Navy MQ-4C Triton, Sea Guardians as well as MQ-8B fire scout and PLA-Navy Guizhou Xianglong (Soar Dragon) are some of the most advanced maritime aerial systems unchallenged globally. Currently, the Indian Navy operates three squadrons of Israeli-made Haron and Searcher Mk II drones to conduct maritime duties, and is now looking to replace these systems with the latest ones. The Indian Navy’s need for unmanned maritime systems including tactical, MALE and HALE unmanned aerial systems is huge. It is evaluating these systems for diverse sea-based missions involving coastal/EEZ maintenance, surveillance in maritime climate, anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, search & rescue assistance, assistance in HADR, limited strike as well as anti-submarine role and enhancement of MDA exploiting marine AIS transponders.

In an effort towards internal solutions, Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a medium altitude (around 32,000 ft) and long-endurance (over 24 hours) multi-mission unmanned air vehicle named Rustom-II (TAPAS-BH-201), currently in the final stages of its development and being perfected for Automatic take-off and landing (ATOL). With 350 kg payload capacity, Rustom-II is being developed with home-made payloads such as medium-range Electric-optic (MREO), SATNAV inertial navigation system, GPA Mk-IV, Electronics and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) as a key surveillance and reconnaissance drone to gather real-time actionable intelligence in the dull and risky border areas and maritime-space. However, for now, it is being tested on some imported payloads also including SAR, Satcom, Long-range EO and Elint systems. It is expected to deliver to the Indian forces including the navy by the end of the year for user trials.

Moreover, Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (VRDE) and RECAL of CSIR-NAL have developed a better fuel-efficient high-power 180 hp digitally-controlled diesel-engine for ADE Rustom-2. Besides, an anti-ship variant of RCI’s Stand-Off Anti-tank (SANT) missile with 15-20 km range is also in the pipeline that could credit anti-surface capability to a naval variant of Rustom-II in the future.

Also, getting crucial inputs from DRDO, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in collaboration with IIT-K and private industry is developing a 200 kg class Rotary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (RUAV) based on VRDE’s 65 hp Wankel rotary engine. As per its architect, RUAV-200 will feature an advanced automatic flight control for naval ship deck to carry out automatic vertical take-off and landing (AVTOL). It is being developed to fulfil requirements of the Indian Navy and Indian Army. It has the capability to carry 40 kg of payloads including SAR, EO/IR, searchlights, ELINT, COMINT, light detection and ranging radar (LIDAR), loud hailer and hyper-spectral imaging camera.

HAL’s RUAV-200 will be crucial to conduct numerous naval tasks including decongestion of harbours and naval bases, radar and missile decoy, ASW, Coastal surveillance and monitoring and anti-piracy operations. Besides, HAL and ADE are also working towards transforming manned Alouette III (Chetak) light utility helicopter to an autonomous rotary air system for the Indian Navy. However, initial efforts to cultivate this 2-tonne category UAV with Israel’s IAI have not worked out, and now HAL-ADE joint squad for UAV development is seeking an overseas counterpart to develop a worthy automatic flight control system for automatic take-off and landing. Earlier, American Lockheed Martin also signalled to join hands with the state-owned HAL to develop Naval RUAV or NRUAV. With Rustom-II, RUAV, and Unmanned Chetak, Indian aerospace engineers have also embarked on the nation’s first strategic stealth-capable strike drone called ‘AURA’ being developed for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy.

In a bid to equip itself with a robust system, the Indian Navy selected American-made Sea Guardians to watch over the Indian ocean. A total 22 MQ-9B Sea Guardians naval surveillance drones could be supplied to the Indian Navy by the US defence major General Atomics and the deal may be signed by the end the year. However, due to limited financial resources, the Indian Navy could go for 10-12 of these systems as the government recently okayed only six additional P-8Is despite the navy asking for 10 Poseidons. These combat-proven and high-endurance Sea guardians networked with the Indian Albatross squadron of P-8Is. This was done to empower a sturdy broad area maritime surveillance (BAMS) that enhanced MDA in the Indian waters.

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