The DRDO has had some success with small UAVs but projects worthy of the IAF’s needs and wants appear to be very distant in the future. Slow rates of progress and minimal levels of technology lagging far behind the sharply rising curve of UAV development worldwide, have meant that the IAF is dependent on imports which are exorbitantly priced. Notwithstanding the huge push for ‘Make in India’ by the present government, the fact that the fourth largest Air Force in the world is constrained to import UAVs, is a matter of national embarrassment. As long as the public sector has the task of designing and developing UAVs, this state is likely to continue. As UAV deployment and resultant intelligence gathering lie largely in the classified domain, public and political perceptions do not place UAV requirements very high on the list of critically required assets for the IAF. Thus, UAVs are likely to remain near the bottom of the wish list the IAF has, especially as even its shortfall of combat aircraft squadrons remains critical and on the ascendant.
The term ‘drone’ was first used in the 1920s in the context of remotely controlled, unmanned, small target aircraft used for practice firing of guns on ships. Since then, technology has distended the scope of unmanned aerial platforms to an astonishing repertoire of roles, tasks and performance envelopes. The resultant definitional muddle tends to obfuscate discussion at times especially as the use of unmanned platforms has found profligate use in civil as well as military domains. The term Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) was adopted in a document called the ‘Unmanned Aircraft System Roadmap 2005-2030’ jointly produced by the US Department of Defence (DoD) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In 2011, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN agency on aviation, issued Circular 328 entitled ‘Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)’. It defined ‘Unmanned Aircraft’ as an aircraft which is intended to operate with no pilot onboard and a UAS as an aircraft and its associated elements (ground control station, data link) which are operated with no pilot onboard. In the military domain, the US DoD definition of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is, “a powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload. Ballistic or semi-ballistic vehicles, cruise missiles and artillery projectiles are not considered unmanned aerial vehicles”. Cruise missile weapons are occasionally confused with UA weapon systems because both are unmanned.
The main differences between cruise missiles and UAVs are firstly, that UAVs are equipped and intended for recovery at the end of their flight while cruise missiles are not and secondly, that munitions carried by UAVs are not tailored and integrated into their airframe whereas the cruise missile’s warheads are. While all these finer distinctions have evolved over the last few decades, ironically, the term ‘drone’ is back in use after a full circle to describe any land, sea, or air vehicle that is remotely or automatically controlled. Modern UAVs operate with various and increasing degrees of autonomy either under remote control by a human operator through an appropriate data link or autonomously by onboard computers. The on-going swell of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is emerging as a force multiplier for UAVs.
India is a laggard in the field of UAVs and the Indian military is largely dependent on imports of expensive craft…
The US and Israel are the world leaders in UAV industrial endeavour while another estimated 90 countries produce some form of UAV or the other. India, despite a huge Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with fifty laboratories engaged in researching technologies, is a laggard in the field of UAVs and the Indian military is largely dependent on imports of expensive craft. The result is that the defence services have remained bereft of UAV inventories matching their needs. The IAF, withered to a 31 combat aircraft squadron strength against a need of 42, is perhaps the worst affected. This article addresses the IAF’s UAV capability and the critical need to shore it up.
The World of Unmanned Platforms
Inarguably, the US leads in the development of unmanned platforms, largely due to the demands of battlefield roles of the US military. According to Military Factory, a source of global aerospace and military reference material, the US has 87 drone aircraft in operation or under development with entry into service dates by 2030 or before. The latest to be announced is the Northrop Grumman Firebird, a new product for an intelligence-gathering aircraft or service based on a newly unveiled, mature configuration of the Firebird, the optionally piloted, single-engine aircraft that first emerged as a Scaled Composites-designed demonstrator in 2011. Northrop Grumman has not released endurance and altitude specifications, but the demonstrator version of the aircraft was designed to fly missions up to 40 hours above 30,000 ft. Research firm Frost & Sullivan, in a recently released report entitled “US DoD UAS Market Forecast to 2023” indicates that UAS technology will continue to expand its presence in US military operations, with combat commanders expecting 24/7 battlefield surveillance.
US DoD funding is expected to exceed $6 billion during this period and the key military imperatives would be developing sophisticated software and hardware that enables autonomous UAV operations and focusing on achieving inter-operability across domains with existing manned and unmanned systems. Interestingly, one of the key features is expected to be the continued upgrades to platforms already in use, the prominent ones being the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, a surveillance UAV using high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR and long-range Electro-Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) sensors with long loiter times over target areas permitting it to survey as much as 100,000 km2 of terrain a day and General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aerial offensive strike platform used by the US Air Force (USAF).
Of more proximate interest to India are its two inimical neighbours – China and Pakistan…
Of more proximate interest to India are its two inimical neighbours – China and Pakistan. China has been making notable advances in several military technologies, unmanned platforms being one of them. Open source information lists 17 types of military UAVs in use by China. At the November 2018 Airshow at Zhuhai, China presented a new concept for the use of strike-capable, multi-rotor UAVs flying in a swarm involving the use of several quad-rotor MR-40 and six-rotor MR-150 UAVs fitted with search and targeting radars and reconnaissance subsystems and armed with an array of weapons, including guided missiles and fragmentation bombs, as well as parachute-retarded and rocket-propelled munitions.
According to Norinco, the developer, the UAV swarm, which has an operating range of 30 km and an endurance of an hour, can also be armed with air-to-air missiles to engage aerial targets at short ranges. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), meanwhile displayed a model of WJ-700, a new long range UAV designed for recce and attack missions. It has an endurance of 20 hours and two hard points which can carry anti-radiation, ground attack or anti-shipping missiles. It has a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of 3,500kg, and can carry out a range of missions, such as surveillance over sea or land, early warning, anti-shipping, anti-radiation, signals intelligence and jamming. The WJ-700 is complemented by similarly capable WJ-600 and WJ-500 UAVs.
It was also announced at Zhuhai that People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had acquired the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC’s) armed reconnaissance Wing Loong II Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV, which is known in PLAAF service as the Gongji-2 (‘Attack 2’ or GJ-2). The Wing Loong II resembles the MQ-9 Reaper and can incorporate up to three hardpoints for external stores. Two other UAVs displayed at Zhuhai were CASIC’s Skyhawk and an unnamed craft – both with pronounced stealth features. The BZK-005E, a modernised version of the indigenously developed BZK-005 UAV also made its appearance at Zhuhai. The BZK-005 is also known as the Changying (Long Eagle) and is in use by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air, land and sea services for long-range reconnaissance and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) missions.
China’s first unmanned combat helicopter AV-500W also attracted a lot of attention at the Airshow. The 7.2m long helicopter has a MTOW of 450kg, a maximum speed of 170kmph and a flight ceiling of 4,000m. It is capable of carrying 120kg of weapons and equipment. Its reconnaissance version can remain aloft for eight hours while the reconnaissance/combat model is able to fly for four hours. An armed AV500W typically carries four air-to-ground missiles, which use radar homing technology for guidance. Each missile weighs eight kilogrammes and can hit a target five kilometres away. It also can carry bombs or a machine-gun pod.
The UAV holding of the IAF is a closely guarded secret and can be surmised to be around 100 as several unclassified sources give the total number of UAVs held by the Indian military to be around 200…
Pakistan claims to have an indigenous UAV development programme and boasts of an indigenous armed UAV, having fired a laser-guided air-to-surface missile named ‘Barq’ in 2015, from the Burraq UAV which has been in service with Pakistan since 2013. It is believed that it was developed with Chinese assistance and is closely related to China’s own CH-3 UAV. That brings us to a matter of more serious concern – the fact that Pakistan’s relations with China portend the sharing of UAV technology. The Wing Loong I, in service with the PLAAF as Gongji-1 (Attack-1) is already operated by Pakistan et al and the CH-5 is expected to enter service soon. There are also reports of China now selling 48 of the latest Wing Loong-II strike UAVs to Pakistan. Against this backdrop, the IAF’s UAV capability appears to be woefully inadequate.
The IAF’s UAV Arsenal
The IAF’s foray into UAV acquisition started with the introspection that followed Kargil where a lot of lessons were learnt and formally documented. The tremendous advantage offered by UAVs in mountainous terrain was self-evident in terms of access, manoeuverability and the fact that there was no pilot onboard to be exposed to Pakistani brutality in case of a crash in enemy territory. The Indian Army was the first to go in for UAVs in 1996, with Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Searcher I, the IAF and the Indian Navy followed in 2000. The first IAF UAV Squadron was No 34 Squadronthat was formed on November 27, 2000, at Bhatinda but in December 2003, the UAV Squadrons were re-numbered in the 3000 series.
Currently, there are five squadrons and a Tech Flight. However, the UAV holding of the IAF is a closely guarded secret and can be surmised to be around 100 as several unclassified sources give the total number of UAVs held by the Indian military to be around 200. Israel, ever ready to enter into defence industrial relations with Indian government and Indian business entities, offered the Searcher I and later Searcher II. Reportedly, Searcher IIs are equipped with the standard day/night surveillance turrets.
The next to enter service in 2003 was the Heron 1 (Machatz-1), a MALE UAV, developed by the Malat (UAV) division of the IAI. It has demonstrated flight operations of up to 52 hours duration at up to 10.5km (35,000 ft) but typically flies 40 hours at an altitude of 9.1km (30,000 ft) with a range of 3,000km and a payload of 250kg which could be electro-optical and thermal surveillance equipment, SAR radars for ground surveillance, maritime patrol radars and sensors, signals and other intelligence collection antennas and equipment, laser designators, and even radio relays. It was designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance and surveillance and Israel offered it to India more for the validation and trial phase of the UAV. India was thus the first user of Heron and the Israeli Air Force and Turkish Defence Forces followed and deployed it for high altitude land surveillance and maritime patrol missions. Indian Herons are reportedly configured with an Elta Systems radar and a stabilised Tamam surveillance and targeting turret.
The use of UAVs by the IAF has had a major limitation as it has been largely confined to Line of Sight (LoS) data linkage, minimally supported by ground-based, relay link stations supplied by IAI…
The IAF was expected to replace its Searcher I and II UAVs with the Heron, but that did not happen and the Searcher II UAVs continue to be in service. Initially, 12 were procured and in 2005, another 50 were reportedly ordered. A subsequent Heron-II or Heron-TP variant is larger, with a bigger 1,200hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turbo-prop to power it. The typical mission payload rises to 1,000kg, which can be carried to around 45,000 feet and the UAV has a maximum flight time of over 36 hours in favourable conditions.
In 2009, the IAF purchased ten Harops from IAI under a $100-million contract. Harop is a Loitering Munition (LM) system developed in Israel by the MBT missiles division of IAI. This Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) is also known as the Harpy-2 Loitering Munitions missile. The drone loiters over the battlefield and attacks targets by self-destructing into them. The Harop UCAV has been developed from the Harpy UAV, also developed by the IAI. This combat drone was unveiled in India at the 2009 AeroIndia Airshow.
The IAF also operates the Lakshya aerial target produced by the DRDO. The IAF had been seeking Heron TP UAV whose missile-carrying capability render it an UCAV since 2012. Its procurement was approved in 2015, with reports emerging in mid-2016 that entry into service with the IAF was imminent, possibly triggered by Pakistan’s use of its indigenous Burraq in a successful terrorist strike in 2015, in the Shawal Valley which killed three terrorists. However, the acquisition process remained in animated suspension until an approval was given again for $400 million in July last year. The UAV has a range of 7,400km and a maximum continuous flight time of around 36 hours, weather permitting. The UCAV is well-suited for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and is capable of long-range limited strikes as well. It can carry a payload of 1,000kg which could include air-to-surface missiles capable of detecting, tracking and striking targets deep inside enemy territory.
The addition of armed UAVs to the existing surveillance and intelligence gathering ones would be a big capability boost for India as it will represent the ability to attack large terrorist camps or individual targets in hostile territory with minimal risk, substantial surprise and no exposure to pilots. Critics contend that the Heron TP is not designed to operate in hostile airspace and would have limited utility and high vulnerability if sent on a mission across the borders of India with either China or Pakistan. The reason is its slow, turbo-prop speed and lack of any stealth features. Even the small number (ten) that it is being procured is indicative of the fact that it may be just a stepping stone to a more capable, jet engine powered UAV with comparatively higher survivability and stealth features.
India’s endeavours to produce indigenously developed UAVs started in the 1990s with the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) being directed to produce India’s first Nishant UAV based on the Indian Army’s requirement for an intelligence gathering platform over enemy territory. The Nishant first flew in 1995. However, four Nishants were lost in accidents and the Army lost interest in the craft. Starting 2003, DRDO then developed a MALE UAV Rustom-I, the design based on Rutan Long-EZ Homebuilt aircraft developed by US-based Rutan Aircraft Factory.
The Rustom-1 was supposed to be a Technology Demonstrator platform for more advanced and more capable UAVs. The Rustom-I had its first flight in 2009, but the project did not evince much interest in the Indian military due to the slow pace of development and an inadequate sensor package. The Rustom-I is unlikely to ever be a full-scale production UAV. Tapas (BH-201), earlier known as Rustom-II, made its first flight in 2016, but had major technical problems. It will take along time for it to be an operational UAV of use to the IAF although the DRDO has announced that it will be ready for operational use by 2020. In 2014, the DRDO had unveiled Panchi, a wheeled version of the Nishant, but its future is as yet uncertain.
What remains to be seen is how much of importance is given by the Indian establishment to arming the IAF with UAVs/UCAVs in larger numbers and with more potency…
Some smaller UAV projects initiated by the DRDO which have had some success are Pilot-less Target Drones such as Abhyas and Lakshay and Netra, which is a light-weight, autonomous UAV for surveillance and reconnaissance operations, but there still has not been a significant, successful major UAV programme. India also has initiated studies and research to develop an autonomous UCAV called ‘Aura’ which DRDO describes as long-range, self-defending, high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon carrying capabilities. ‘Aura’is expected to have stealth properties to make it undetectable by radar and thus suitable for cross border strikes. In another related development, in May last year, Dr Deodhare, Director of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) announced that ADA had been cleared by the government to commence work on the development of an Unmanned Tejas, India’s Light Combat Aircraft or LCA. This development is likely to help fast-track development of India’s indigenous stealth autonomous UCAV programme.
To summarise, the DRDO has had some success with small UAVs but projects worthy of the IAF’s needs and wants appear to be very distant in the future. Slow rates of progress and minimal levels of technology (lagging far behind the sharply rising curve of UAV development worldwide) have meant that the IAF is dependent on imports which are exorbitantly priced. Notwithstanding the huge push for ‘Make In India’ by the present government, the fact that the fourth largest Air Force in the world is constrained to import UAVs is a matter of national embarrassment. As long as the public sector has the task of designing and developing UAVs, this state is likely to continue. As UAV deployment and resultant intelligence gathering lie largely in the classified domain, public and political perceptions do not place UAV requirements very high on the list of critically required assets for the IAF. Thus, UAVs are likely to remain near the bottom of the wishlist the IAF has, especially as even its shortfall of combat aircraft squadrons remains critical and on the ascendant.
The use of UAVs by the IAF has had a major limitation as it has been largely confined to Line of Sight (LoS) data linkage, minimally supported by ground-based, relay link stations supplied by IAI. This limitation did not exist for National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) which had satellite communication equipment to support its operations. With the launch of the IAF’s dedicated communications GSAT-7A satellite in December last year, UAV deployment and productivity have been enhanced significantly as has been the IAF’s capability to contribute to network-centric warfare. The satellite costs only $85 million; but the value addition to IAF’s UAV utilisation is immeasurable as it will greatly improve the capability to receive real time data from UAVs.
Given the step-motherly disposition of the government towards the defence services in general, the prospects of a substantial boost to the IAF’s UAV capability appear desolately bleak…
ADE, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Bharat Electronics are the main public sector entities that have been working in collaboration with IAI, ideaForge and Edall Systems to develop and produce UAVs. Regrettably, the slow speed at which ‘Make In India’ is making inroads into defence and aerospace sectors, has meant that inefficient and low productivity public sector enterprises have retained their hold and shackled the two sectors. Recent forays into the UAV domain by private Indian entities appear to be encouraging signs, the most significant perhaps being the setting up of AdaniElbit Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) manufacturing facility in Hyderabad. This is a JV between Adani Defence and Aerospace, part of Adani group and Israel-based Elbit Systems. It is the first private UAV manufacturing unit in India and the first one outside Israel to manufacture an Israeli UAV, namely Hermes 900 MALE UAV and later, the Hermes 450. Adani Defence and Aerospace has also involved in the project Comprotech, AutoTEC, Alpha Tocol and Alpha Design Technologies in which Adani Group has picked up a substantial stake. Reliance Defence and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) are also entering the UAV arena and the future looks promising. However, it will be at least a decade before tangible result in terms of UAVs of real operational use to the IAF become available from the private sector.
The IAF has been mooting a separate, role-specific cadre for its UAV force so that professionals are recruited for this niche specialty, much like pilots for the other streams. The proposal was initiated by its Training Command in 2012. However, the proposal is likely to be smothered by the Ministry of Defence as the Defence Minister has already indicated that her Ministry is discussing a unified UAV force and creating another silo within the IAF was not acceptable.
Sensationalisation by the media, loud iterations by militaries across the world and alarmist noises by think-tanks – all indicate that the predictions about UAVs and UCAVs bringing about transformation in the conduct of all subsets of war have already fructified and that the nature of war has already undergone significant changes due to the availability of UAVs/UCAVs and, more importantly, the willingness of their parent nations to use them increasingly. What remains to be seen is how much of importance is given by the Indian establishment to arming the IAF with UAVs/UCAVs in larger numbers and with more potency. There are reports that India is planning to cut down the Navy’s original requirement of 22 MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs to only ten. The IAF is also keen to buy 80 to 100 General Atomics Predator C Avenger aircraft at a huge cost of approximately $8 billion from the US, but given the pathetically low combat squadron strength, the woefully inadequate capital budgetary allocation to the IAF in the Budget 2018-2019 and the step-motherly disposition of the government towards the defence services in general, the prospects of a substantial boost to the IAF’s UAV capability appear desolately bleak.