According to news reports, the indigenous ‘Ghatak’ unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), also called AURA, and under development by the DRDO is likely to take to the by the end of this year. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), responsible for the design work, describes Ghatak as a “self-defending high speed UAV with weapon firing capability”. ADA is developing Ghatak in conjunction IIT Kanpur.
Ghatak’s design reportedly is akin to Northrop Grumman’s B-2 Spirit, but this maybe more to do with looks, certain dynamics and stealth technology, because B-2 Spirit is a ‘manned’ heavy penetration stealth bomber that features low, observable stealth technology designed for penetrating dense anti-aircraft environment. The Ghatak program is presently in the project definition stage albeit DRDO is confident that Ghatak’s scale model will be flown this year.
The Ghatak UCAV is to be capable of releasing missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions (PGMs). The prototype codenamed SWiFT (stealth wing flying test-bed), SWiFT is to be fitted with a Russian NPO Saturn 36MT turbofan engine (which powers the Nirbhay cruise missile) and is to be launched on its first flight during FY 2018-19 – most likely by end 2018. Ghatak will be an air-launched UCAV for use by the IAF.
In addition to performing tasks of airborne intelligence and gathering electronic intelligence, Ghatak would be capable of operating in hostile territory, evading enemy sensors by virtue of its stealth, and destroying identified targets with air-to-ground weapons. Hopefully, the DRDO’s claims are genuine because its past record in terms of drones has been very poor – starting with the ‘Nishant’ and even ‘Rustom II’.
Our military’s requirement of UAVs has suffered past several years because of lack of industrial expertise, combined with delays and cost overruns.
One major reason is that the private industry has not been allowed to grow in this field because of vested reasons – otherwise matching the massive drone industry of China could have taken off years back. This has also adversely affected border surveillance in face of concerted Pakistani attempts for infiltrating terrorists into India and Chinese intrusions along the Line of Actual control, recent intrusion in Tuting area of Arunachal being one example; chance detection of 1.25 km road constructed inside Indian Territory by a hunter.
The logic that no country will share stealth technology with us may be true but it does not imply that development of state-of-the-art drones be restricted to the DRDO. If the Ghatak is to be a success, rest assured the brains have come from IIT Kanpur. There is enough talent in the civil and the youth in the country. Remember 14-year old Harshwardhan Zala who bagged a five crore with the Gujarat State Government in January 2017 for production of the drone designed by him that locates and destroys mines?
Ever wondered why the DRDO with a strength of 30,000 including 5,000 scientists, whose annual budget for FY 2017-2018 is Rupees 14,818 cr (US$2.3 billion) could not produce such a drone since its establishment in 1958 – 60 years gone by?
The aforesaid establishes we have enough talent in the country, which needs to be optimized. But this mismatch is not new. During the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) Course In 1979, post a talk by Dr Raja Ramanna, he was asked by a Naval officer if India had the technology to weld steel? Replied in affirmative, the officer then asked why are our submarines travelling 6000 nautical miles to Vladivostok for minor welding jobs?
Ramanna’s response to the officer was that he was probably “misinformed”. But Ramanna was speechless when the officer told him he has come for the course from a submarine unit and had travelled to Vladivostok in his submarine for such repair. Nothing has really changed with the bureaucracy in MoD, one example being the tragedy of a naval submarine running on outdated batteries while MoD sat on replacement batteries available in India for 15 months.
Are we saying no one will share advanced technologies with us to promote DRDO or have we drawn such conclusion post consulting strategic partners? Aren’t some saying sky is the limit, ready to share most advanced technologies, while some see India countervail to aggressive China? Are we content with the pace of our development of drones, and are we blind to the developments in our immediate neighbourhood?
Pakistan tested its indigenous ‘Burraq’ UCAV in 2015 and same year China offered to sell Pakistan its CH-3 UCAV, which can carry two laser-guided missiles or bombs. In November 2016, China officially opened global export for the CH-5 combat drone, including transfer of technology to buyers.
Made of composite materials and wingspan of 21 metres, the CH-5 can stay airborne for 60 hours and operate at an altitude of up to 10 km. Its current maximum range is 6,500 km, and next upgrade aims to enable flying range of 10,000 km. It can carry airborne early warning system, as well as electronic warfare instruments. With a payload of 1,000 kg of equipment and weapons, it can carry 16 air-to-surface missiles. During 2017, the CH-5 was photographed at an airbase in Pakistan. China plans to develop advanced version of CH-5 capable of staying in the air for up to 120 hours, with a 20,000 km range.
The Army does have an ambitious plan in next 3-5 years to equip UAVs down to the battalion level, while the Air Force plans to have fully operational squadrons of surveillance UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). The plan includes the induction multiple man-portable mini and micro UAVs for short-range surveillance, and nuclear, biological, chemical detection in the battlefield. According to MoD sources, the private sector will be involved in a big in future to meet overall requirements of UAVs; in the next two years fresh tenders are to be floated for a variety of UAVs and that a concept study has commenced for developing a bomber UAV and a fighter UAV. But knowing the system and the continuing glitches in the Strategic Partnership Model (SPM), fielding of UAV’s down to ground levels appears sheer utopia; 6-10 years would perhaps be a better bet.
Earlier, DRDO had talked about: 500 mini and macro UAVs and an unspecified number of HALE UAVs for the Army; 95 micro unmanned aerial systems and unspecified numbers of HALE UAVs for the Navy, and; unspecified number of UCAVs, 95 micro unmanned aerial systems and an unspecified number of small VTOL and mini unmanned aerial systems for the Air Force.
Significantly, DRDO’s Rustom-2 UAV which DRDO claimed would be a UCAV, did not meet the criteria – DRDO eventually admitted that Rustom-2 cannot be converted into armed drone since DRDO was unable to integrate missiles with the Rustom series of drones. Once the Ghatak is successfully tested, ‘hopefully’ DRDO will be in a position to develop requisite UCAV for the Army as well. Looking at the prominence of drones in the immediate future and beyond, India for sure has much catching up to do. It would be prudent to optimize total national effort, both private and public, rather than just relying on DRDO.