Seriously Lacking

In the coming decade there will be a huge requirement of MALE-UAVs in the armed forces

Prasun K. Sengupta

If the Indian ministry of defence’s (MoD) ‘Technology Perspective & Capability Roadmap-2018’ is to be believed, then in the decade ahead the Indian Army and Navy will require up to 140 new-build medium-altitude, long endurance (MALE) and 80 tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), while the Indian Air Force (IAF) will require up to 70 stealthy, turbofan-powered, armed unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), and the navy and air force will have a combined requirement of 100 turbofan-powered high-altitude, long endurance UAVs.

In the coming decade there will be a huge requirement of MALE-UAVs in the armed forces

In addition, the navy will require 50 vertically-launched tactical UAVs capable of operating from warships and submarines, while all the three armed services will require more than 2,000 units of mini-UAVs. But exactly how much of all these will be home-grown platforms remains to be seen, especially since all the three armed services have since 1996 been operating imported MALE-UAVs, all of which (Searcher Mk.1 and Mk.2, and Heron-1 and Super Heron) have been imported from Israel Aerospace Industries’ MALAT Division. This despite the fact that the MoD-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO)’s Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) has been entrusted with the task of developing UAVs for the past 30 years.

It was following the conduct of Exercise Brass Tacks and Exercise Checker Board in 1986 that there arose a requirement by the Indian Army for a tactical UAV capable of conducting battlefield surveillance. Consequently, it was decided in September 1988 that ADE would indigenously develop this 380kg UAV known as Nishant. The army finalised its general staff qualitative requirement (GSQR) in May 1990, following which the first Nishant UAV technology demonstrator made its maiden flight in 1995. It was rail-launched from a hydro-pneumatic launcher imported from Finland, while its power-plant was a Vehicles Research & Development Establishment (VRDE)-developed twin-cylinder RE-2-21-P piston engine developing 21hp and weighing 10.5kg.

By 2002, the army had placed an order for eight Nishants along with two ground control stations (GCS) worth Rs 800 million (USD17.9 million). User-assisted field trials commenced in late 2008 and the confirmatory user trials at Pokhran, Rajasthan, were conducted in February 2011, following which the first four UAVs and their launch vehicles were delivered. However, the army in 2015 refused to place a follow-on order for eight Nishants (each costing Rs 22 crore) and two GCS after a spate of crashes involving the already-delivered Nishants. Recovered by a parachute, the Nishants were invariably damaged structurally and rendered unusable for long periods. A wheeled version of the Nishant, named Panchi, has been under development by ADE since 2013 and its first technology demonstrator, powered by a VRDE-developed four-cylinder RE-4-38-P engine (developing 38hp and weighing 22kg), made its maiden flight on 24 December 2014. No orders for this UAV have been placed by any end-user so far.

A similar fate seems to have befallen the ADE-developed Rustom-1 tactical UAV, which is powered by a single imported Lycoming O-320 engine developing 150hp and which made its maiden flight on 16 November 2009 at the Taneja Aerospace Air Field near Hosur in Karnataka. Its production deliveries were to commence in late 2013, but to date that has yet to happen despite the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approving Rs 10.54 billion in funding in March 2011 for developing the Rustom-1 (this including the sum of Rs 1.156 billion for producing 15 such UAVs and Rs 0.384 billion being sanctioned for creating a fully instrumented aeronautical test range (ATR) at Chitradurga, situated approximately 200km away from Bengaluru. The Rustom-1’s prototype features an all-modular composites-built airframe supplied by Zephyr.

The ADE’s latest attempt to indigenously develop UAVs involves the TAPAS-BH-201 (formerly known as Rustom-2) MALE-UAV, powered by twin imported Austro Engine E4 (marketed as liquid-cooled, inline, four-cylinder, four-stroke diesel engines each rated at 170hp). The first flying prototype made its maiden flight on 15 November 2016 and again on 25 February 2018. Its design was completed by February 2012 and in September 2013 a technology demonstrator without any mission payloads began full-power taxi trials. To be co-developed by the ADE, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) at a cost of USD 46 million, the initial requirement for this MALE-UAV is for 76 for all the three armed services. The TAPAS-BH-201 has a length of 9.5 metres, wingspan of more than 20 metres and an empty weight of 1,800kg. Its maximum airborne cruise speed is 225kph, but it has an impressive estimated endurance of more than 24 hours and it can operate up to an altitude of 35,000 feet above mean sea level.

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