Indian armed forces are yet to realise the criticality of loitering munitions and suicide drones
Military technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the late 2000’s bringing about with it an age of disruption, with the emergence of relatively inexpensive and low-cost precision Loitering Munitions (LM) and suicide drones allowing pin-point engagement of targets in a manner simply not possible before.
While such weapons remain susceptible to enemy air defences when operating in highly contested environments, there is no doubt that they will play in an important role in any future conflict.
Investments in these drone-based weapons has allowed countries like China, Turkey and Israel to leapfrog western competition which still remains focussed on larger and more expensive conventional missile armament delivered from combat aircraft. Despite its impressive and growing indigenous capability in the development of missile armament, India is yet to announce any major indigenous LM or suicide drone projects. This is a matter of concern as both China and Turkey, who are close military allies with Pakistan are now far advanced with their own home-grown programmes for loitering munitions and suicide drones.
The inability of the large Indian defence industrial complex comprising the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) and defence public sector undertakings (DPSU) such as HAL, BEL, etc to develop indigenous LM and suicide drones is puzzling.
This is even more puzzling when one considers indigenous programmes for manufacture of advanced fighters, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, all of which are far more expensive and technologically more complex. At the very least, India’s close defence partnership with Israel should have resulted in a decision to manufacture significant quantities of LMs under license, while indigenous efforts came to fruition. At present, apart from smaller procurements of imported LM such as the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Harpy and Harop, there does not appear to be a concerted effort to induct larger quantities of such drone-based munitions for the armed and paramilitary forces.
In 2020, several joint ventures (JV) were announced for manufacture of LM in India, but formal contracts are yet to be announced. Among the promising JVs for manufacture of loitering munitions in India, include the ALPHA-ELSEC between Bengaluru based Alpha Design Technologies Pvt Ltd (ADTL) and Elbit Systems for the SkyStriker and the Avision JV between Aditya Precitech and UVision Air for manufacture Precision Attack Loitering Munition (PALM) Hero Systems.
SkyStriker is a fully autonomous LM which can undertake long-range precise tactical strikes providing direct-fire aerial-precision capabilities to manoeuvrable troops and Special Forces. Either of its two warhead options of 5kg or 10kg can be installed inside the fuselage and the LM’s electric propulsion delivers a low acoustic signature. Elbit touts speed as one of the major advantages of the SkyStriker munition, which takes only 6.5 minutes to travel a distance of 20km at maximum speed. Loiter time with the 5kg warhead is claimed to be two hours, reducing to one hour with the larger payload. Endurance is reduced by 15 minutes at maximum speed of 100 knots. The LM can withstand a maximum wind velocity of 40 knots on the strike leg of the mission and it can dive speeds of 300knots before impacting the target.
Avision will undertake design, development manufacture and maintenance support for all PALM Hero series products for the Indian market and Aditya Precitech already has extensive experience in the defence domain due to its partnership with the DRDO on various projects. UVision had earlier in 2019 announced that its Hero-30 and the Hero-400EC lethal loitering systems had been demonstrated to a strategic customer in Asia.
The Hero-400EC features a multi-purpose warhead and extended-range, while the Hero-30 is a high-precision, light-weight man-pack portable LM. During the demonstrations, UVision had demonstrated the precision target strikes of the LM’s along with tracking and lock-on capabilities of the system on a vehicle in various operational scenarios along with its mission-abort capabilities and parachute recovery.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also accelerating procurement of loitering munitions and suicide drones, with Chinese arms companies already developing several types of suicide drones, including the CH-901 and WS-43. The 9kg CH-901 can stay in the air for two hours with an operational radius of 15km. The 1.2m long loitering munition can attain a top speed of 150 kmph.
The WS-43 on the other hand has a range of 60km and loiter time of 30 minutes but is deployed from rocket launcher. China has also gained precious operational experience in operating and deploying weapons from large Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), such as its Wing Loong Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones. Wing Loong drones have been exported to more than a dozen countries, with the MALE UAV costing a million dollars apiece, going up to three million dollars with the associated ground control equipment. The creation of the entire armed Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) ecosystem with China presents it with a major asymmetric advantage against India, which has to import the bulk of its requirements in this arena.
Turkey continues to make dramatic advances in drone technologies and drone weaponry. Turkish defence firm Roketsan’s light-weight precision weapon MAM-L and KGK-SİHA-82 and TEBER-82 munitions have been seen fitted on Turkish Aerospace built Aksungur MALE drones. The Aksungur UAV recently struck a target 30km away with the 340kg KGK-SİHA-82 munition in its first launch of the weapon. Turkey is already introducing indigenously developed suicide drones into service such as STM’s ‘Kargu’ Rotary-wing UAV attack drones or its new ‘Alpagu’ loitering munitions. These new generation weapons are also attracting export orders and Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) announced the first foreign order for the Kargu Rotary Wing UAV Attack drone in July.
Over 500 Kargu suicide drones are to be delivered to the Turkish armed forces as per an announcement made by STM last year and they are also being supplied to Turkey’s police and security forces. Deliveries of Alpagu loitering munitions, which can be launched from armed unmanned aerial platforms, started last year to the Turkish armed forces. An export order for Alpagu is yet to be announced though. STM is also planning larger Alpagu variants which will weigh more than 10kg and be faster, have longer range and carry a heavier warhead. Loitering munitions dive down on their targets to deliver pinpoint damage to high-value, important targets.
According to STM, Alpagu will also make use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and image-processing capabilities, providing it with swarm attack capability. Efforts are also already underway to streamline and improve swarm algorithms to perform different tasks for the Turkish armed forces. Turkey is also undertaking the KERKES project to enable the drone swarm to function smoothly in any environment. STM has stated that it plans to offer full swarming abilities on Kargu drones by 2022-23 with efforts underway to streamline and improve swarm algorithms to perform different tasks. The availability of swarm attack capabilities will deliver a major boost in capability for the Turkish armed forces.
The Kargu suicide drone can carry one or three kilogram warheads and engage targets at a claimed Circular Error Probable (CEP) of six metre. The attack drone has a range of between 5-10 km in line of sight mode with an endurance of 30 minutes and can be used as a suicide drone or as a loitering munition system. Operating mission altitude is claimed to be 500m. Kargu suicide drones deliver a vital battlefield capability as they can swiftly engage time sensitive targets with their ability to detect static or mobile targets and then strike at them in day or night conditions. The drones are operated with a man-in-the-loop via the Mobile Ground Control Station and also undertake tactical ISR missions in addition to providing ground troops with precision strike capabilties.
Kargu drones undertake fully autonomous navigation due to STM’s unique flight control system and it can be operated as part of a swarm of up to 20 platforms or as a single platform. Alpagu loitering munitions are built using a lightweight structure with low radar cross-section and weigh less than two kg. Despite their light weight which allows them to be easily transported and used by a single soldier, they feature sufficient explosive power to neutralise the intended target.