Watchdogs in the Sky

IAF is rapidly growing its unmanned ISR capability

Atul Chandra

The Indian Air Force (IAF) needs to rapidly induct greater numbers of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), Electronic Warfare (EW) and Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft to cater to future battles. In the future the IAF could be called upon to defend against an adversary that is gaining near superpower status and one that will have access to a large number of airborne and ground-based assets to strike at the IAF. The much smaller but combat proven IAF will require to make the best of its available resources in a future combat scenario before the end of the decade.

The MQ-9B Sky Guardian can deliver persistent ISR at long.ranges can stay in the air for up to 40 hours at a stretch
The MQ-9B Sky Guardian can deliver persistent ISR at long.ranges can stay in the air for up to 40 hours at a stretch

In the ‘Doctrine of the Indian Air Force’ released in January 2023, the air arm states that ‘the air and near space domain are increasingly a continuum for the IAF due to the increasingly high dependency for ISR, navigation, imagery, targeting, meteorology, communication, operational networks, command and control, enhanced AD responsibility etc.’ It goes on to state that aerospace power is a key enabler in military strategy and for execution of surface and sub-surface operations. It states that ‘control of the air has assumed great importance in military strategy the world over because adversarial air power can increasingly interfere with the progress of operations on land, sea and air,’ adding that aerospace power provides a ‘here and now’ response mechanism to an increasing range of national security concerns.

Looking at the present pace of inductions, the IAF will largely have only 4th generation and 4th generation plus platforms in service and the combat effectiveness of these platforms can be dramatically enhanced with greater numbers of manned and unmanned ISR, EW and AEW assets. The IAF presently operates three Israeli A-50I Phalcon AWACS platforms alongside two Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) developed ‘Netra’ Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft. A third Netra aircraft is slated to be delivered to the IAF before the end of the year.

ISR and AEW assets are available across a wide-range of platforms and capabilities with proven off-the-shelf hardware, which can reduce the time needed for their induction. However, the IAF is presently pursuing the acquisition of indigenously developed AEW&C platforms based on pre-owned Airbus A321 single-aisle jetliners procured from Air India. The modification of these aircraft will be executed by Airbus Defence and Space (ADS), Spain, with additional modifications undertaken by the Centre for Airborne Systems (CABS) and other DRDO labs, along with Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU) and Indian private sector firms. The Rs 11,000 crore AEW&C Mk II project was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in September 2021, and it will be a miracle if the IAF is able to induct the first of these platforms before the end of the decade.

These numbers are woefully inadequate for the IAF, which is required to be ready for combat on two fronts and has to monitor and control the battlespace across a large frontage. These manned ISR aircraft are not only costly to procure but also expensive to operate, requiring sizeable numbers of highly trained aircrew. It is for this reason, the IAF is preferring unmanned ISR assets.


Unmanned ISR

The IAF is now accelerating its acquisition and induction of unmanned ISR platforms. The most recent being the induction of Israeli made Heron MK II Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in August. The IAF is now thought to have at least four operational Heron MK IIs in service. “The Heron Mark 2 is a very capable drone. This is capable of longer endurance and has ‘beyond line of sight’ capability. With this, the entire country can be surveyed from the same place. The drone simply amalgamates into the Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance matrix of the Indian Air Force,” the commanding officer of the drone squadron, Wing Commander Pankaj Rana said while speaking to the news agency, ANI.

The Heron MK II is an updated model of the Heron UAV, which has been in service with the IAF since the early 2000s. The Heron MK II is manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and can remain in the air for 45 consecutive hours, reaching an altitude of 35,000 feet and a maximum speed of 150 knots. A standout feature of the Heron MK II is its ‘Standoff Capability’, gathering intelligence from tens of kilometers away without crossing the border, thanks to its larger and improved sensors. The Heron MK II can also carry a wide range of additional payloads such as ELINT, COMINT, ESM, Communication Relay, etc. The Heron MK II has an operating range of more than 250 km in ‘line of sight’ (LOS) mode and over 1,000 km in beyond line of sight (BLOS) mode.

There will also be a quantum leap in the IAF’s unmanned ISR capability when the deal for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) MQ-9B High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs fructifies. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) accorded the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) in June for the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B (16 Sky Guardian and 15 Sea Guardian) remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) through the foreign military sale (FMS) route. The 16 Sky Guardians will be divided equally between the air force and the army. The USD 3 billion deal will be a game changer in the regional context. The MQ-9As have already proven their worth in the Indian Navy, supplied by GA-ASI as part of a Company-Owned, Company-Operated (COCO) lease agreement. The two MQ-9A Remotely Piloted Aircraft on lease from GA-ASI to the navy completed their 10,000th flight hour of operations in November 2022, helping the navy to cover over 14 million square miles of operating area.

The MQ-9B Sky Guardian can deliver persistent ISR at long ranges and is designed to fly over the horizon via satellite, staying in the air for up to more than 40 hours in all types of weather and safely integrate into civil airspace, enabling joint forces and civil authorities to deliver real-time situational awareness anywhere in the world—day or night. The aircraft is equipped with a Multi-mode Radar, an advanced Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) sensor, automatic take-off and landing, and features a longer 79 ft wingspan than its predecessors. The Sky Guardian features nine hardpoints (8 wing, 1 centerline) and can carry a maximum external payload of 2.15 tonne.

In July 2023, GA‑ASI announced that its UAS family, which includes the Predator, Reaper, Gray Eagle, Avenger, and MQ-9B Sky Guardian/Sea Guardian lines, had surpassed eight million flight hours, completing 5,66,000 total missions in nearly 40 countries around the world. Adding to the total are 13 MQ-9B Sky Guardian/Sea Guardian UAS that have flown over 4,000 flight hours, including the new Protector RG Mk1 being delivered to the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force. The first three Protectors are currently undergoing Integrated Test, Evaluation, and Acceptance trials. In addition, MQ-9Bs are also operated by the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF).

The DRDO developed TAPAS MALE UAS is still some time away from service entry
The DRDO developed TAPAS MALE UAS is still some time away from service entry


Indigenous Developments

The DRDO’s record in developing UAVs badly needed by the Indian armed forces is less than stellar. It is continuing with the development of the Tactical Aerial Platform for Advanced Surveillance 201 (TAPAS 201) and Tactical Aerial Platform for Advanced Surveillance-Beyond Horizon (TAPAS-BH), which it says is its solution for the tri services ISTAR requirements. The TAPAS-BH will be capable of operating at altitudes up to 28,000 feet, with an endurance of 18 plus hours.

In June, the DRDO announced the completion of the 200th flight of the TAPAS UAV, which was also demonstrated to a tri-services team for the first time at the Aeronautical Test Range (ATR) Chitradurga. Following this announcement, the DRDO announced that the TAPAS was ready for user evaluation trials.

The TAPAS 201 made its maiden flight in November 2016. It was earlier known as the RUSTOM II. The two tonne TAPAS 201 is being designed and developed by Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and is a multi-mission UAV for ISR roles for the three armed forces with an endurance of 24 hours. It is able to carry different combinations of payloads like Medium Range Electro Optic (MREO), Long Range Electro Optic (LREO), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Electronic Intelligence (ELINT), Communication Intelligence (COMINT) and Situational Awareness Payloads (SAP) to perform missions during day and night.


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