Military & Aerospace

IAF’s Unmanned Capability: Prospects for Indigenisation
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Issue Vol. 34.1 Jan-Mar 2019 | Date : 29 Nov , 2020

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have contributed to the application of air power for decades; in a sense, the German V1 flying bomb of the 1940s was a UAV. Current definitions however, discount ballistic vehicles, cruise missiles and artillery projectiles from the hugely expansive and speedily proliferate realm of UAVs increasingly being employed as handmaidens of state and non-state, military and terrorist, nations and sub-national entities. Some episodes of their use grab worldwide attention as was the case with the strike last September on two oil installations of Aramco in Saudi Arabia. Not only was it spectacular because of the fact that it shook up Saudi oil and gas production, but also on account of the dramatic effect on oil prices the world over.

Technological advances have proved abundantly generous to UAV developments – rendering them inexpensive as compared to manned aerial platforms, options to use in a vast spectrum of battlefield roles as well as away from the battlefield. Electronic warfare, transportation and resupply, communication hubs, weather services, intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, combat support, target acquisition and designation, battle damage assessment, Special Operations and casualty evacuation are some of the unmanned, unarmed roles. However, increasing weaponisation of UAVs is throwing up new and emerging roles like aerial combat, suppression of enemy air defences, strikes, manned-unmanned teams, air strikes in the battlefield and beyond as well as kamikaze (loiter and destroy) type missions where the UAV itself carries an integral explosive load and can guide itself to impact with high value targets. Their size varies from a few millimetres to huge airliner-sized flying platforms. Every nation wants to own UAVs, at least a hundred already own some measure of UAVs. The Indian Air Force (IAF), the fourth largest in the world, sadly lacks an impressive repertoire of UAVs commensurate with its stature. It is no consolation that even its combat fighter strength of 30 squadrons is less than three-fourth of its authorised strength of 42, a figure long overdue for a reassessment.

Current State

Indian military interest in UAVs started in the 1990s and the Indian Army was the first to acquire a UAV – the Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Searcher Mark 1 in 1996; the IAF and Navy followed in 2000. The IAF was possibly provided the impetus for UAV acquisition by l’affaire Kargil which threw up useful lessons about the need for inexpensive options for aerial recce and surveillance. The tremendous advantage offered by UAVs in mountainous terrain was obvious 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 first IAF UAV Squadron was No 34 Squadron. It was formed on November 27, 2000, at Bhatinda, but in December 2003, the UAV Squadrons were renumbered in the 3000 series. Currently, according to open source information, there are five squadrons and a Tech Flight. The UAV holding of the IAF is a closely guarded secret and can be estimated to be around 100 as some unclassified sources give the total number of UAVs held by the Indian military to be around 200. As an aside, according to The Jerusalem Post, the IAF operates close to 180 Israeli-made UAVs.

Israel, ever ready to enter into defence industrial relations with the Indian government and Indian business entities, offered to India the Searcher Mark I and later Searcher Mark II. Reportedly, Searcher IIs are equipped with a standard day/night surveillance turret. The next to enter service in 2003 was the Heron Mark 1 (Machatz-1), a Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV. Developed by the Malat (UAV) division of IAI, it can undertake flight operations of periods up to 52 hours with a ceiling of 35,000 ft, but is normally used for 40-hour sorties at an altitude of 30,000 ft with a range of 3,000 km. Typical payload is 250kg with options of 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 radio relays. It was designed to carry out strategic reconnaissance and surveillance, and India was destined to be the testing ground for this system as Israel offered it to India for its trial and validation. India was thus the first user of Heron with the Israeli Air Force and the Turkish Defence Forces inducting it later. Reportedly, Indian Herons are fitted with an Elta Systems radar and a stabilised Tamam surveillance and targeting turret. The IAF was expected to replace its entire inventory of Searcher I and II UAVs with the Heron, but that did not happen and the Searcher II UAVs continue to be a service. Initially, 12 were procured and in 2005, another 50 were reportedly ordered subsequently.

The IAF had been seeking Heron TP UAV whose missile carrying capability renders it an Unarmed Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) since 2012 and the procurement was approved in 2015. Israel was inhibited in sale of its Heron Mark II (or Heron-TP) system because of its voluntary moratorium on selling dual-use strategic assets to parties not signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR),although Israel itself is not a MTCR signatory. Following India’s entry into the MTCR in 2016, agreement was reached for the purchase of ten Heron TPs. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had approved the proposal in May 2018 for a deal valued at $400 million. This could be the first drone in the Indian arsenal to have a missile-strike ability hence can be used to hit at targets without sending a man on the mission on board a fighter jet. The Heron TP is larger than Heron Mark I and has a bigger 1,200hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop to power it. Typical mission payload can be 1,000 kg, but the export version is limited to 450 kg payload which could include air-to-surface missiles capable of detecting, tracking and striking targets deep in enemy territory. This payload can be carried to around 45,000 feet and the UCAV has a range of 7,400 km and maximum flight time of over 36 hours in favourable conditions.

The UCAV is well-suited for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions and is capable of long-range limited strikes as well. The addition of armed UAVs to surveillance and intelligence gathering ones is a big capability boost for India as it represents the ability to attack large terrorist camps or individual targets in hostile territory with minimal risk, substantial surprise and no exposure of 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 into China or Pakistan. The reason is its slow, turboprop speed and lack of any stealth features. Even the small number (10) that is being procured is indicative of the fact that it may be just a stepping stone to a more capable, jet engine UAV with comparatively higher survivability and stealth features.

In 2009, the IAF had reportedly purchased ten Harops from IAI under a $100m contract. Developed by IAI from the Harpy UAV, this combat drone was unveiled in India at the Aero-India 2009. Harop is a Loitering Munition (LM) system developed in Israel by the MBT missiles division of IAI and has the capabilities of a UAV and a lethal missile. This UCAV is also known as the Harpy-2 loitering munitions missile. Small enough to bypass enemy aircraft detection systems, the Harop which has 23 kg of onboard explosives – searches, identifies and loiters above high-value military targets like surveillance bases and radar stations before attacking and destroying them. If a target is not engaged, the drone will return and land itself back at its base. Reportedly, the IAF is in the process of acquiring 54 more Harops as approved by the MoD in February 2019.

Besides the Israeli UAVs mentioned so far, the IAF operates a small number of indigenous Lakshya aerial targets produced by the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). Lakshya is a cost effective re-usable high subsonic aerial target system powered by a gas turbine engine and launched either from land or ship. It carries two towed targets with tow lengths of 1.5 km each having radar, IR or visual signature augmentation and Miss Distance Indication Scoring System. The IAF uses it for training of combat aircraft pilots in weapon engagement. The Lakshya was inducted into the IAF in 2000, and has no offensive role. Trials are on for some other UAVs under development by the DRDO.

As can be seen, the bulk of the IAF’s UAV inventory is of Israeli origin. On account of high costs related to imports, the current IAF holding has been built up to only around 100 UAVs – a number that is insufficient for all of IAF’s assigned roles. Indigenous development has, like in most DRDO endeavours, failed to fulfill the UAV needs of the IAF.

Indigenous Endeavours

In the 1990s, India started developing indigenous UAVs with the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) being tasked to produce India’s first Nishant UAV based on Indian Army’s requirement for a platform for intelligence gathering over enemy territory. The Nishant was a multi-mission UAV launched using a Mobile Hydro Pneumatic Launcher with Day/Night capability used for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance, target tracking and localisation and artillery fire correction. It had limited autonomous flight capabilities and was controlled from the Ground Control Station. The Nishant was recovered with an Aero Conical Parachute. It first flew in 1995, but with four accidents in quick succession, its fate was sealed.

The DRDO then developed a MALE UAV RUSTOM-1 whose design was based on Rutan Long-EZ Homebuilt aircraft developed by American based Rutan Aircraft Factory. RUSTOM-1 was planned to be a technology demonstrator platform for more advanced and more capable UAVs. RUSTOM-1 is an all composite, 800kg class Short Range Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (SR-RPAS) having capabilities of ISR, Target Acquisition/Tracking and Image Exploitation. RUSTOM-1 is the first Indian RPAS to have conventional take-off and landing capability. It has autonomous flight mode and Get-To-Home features. Rustom-1 has demonstrated flight endurance of ten hours, range of 200km and a ceiling of 20,000ft. It has a rear-mounted main wing and a front canard wing assembly. The power plant (Lycoming O-320) developing 150hp is contained in the aft section of the fuselage and drives a two-bladed propeller. It first flew in 2009, but the IAF did not evince much interest in the project due to the slow pace of development and an inadequate sensor package. RUSTOM-1 is unlikely to ever be a full-scale production UAV although the project is not yet officially deceased.

Another UAV that was reportedly said to belong to the Rustom family was the Rustom H (high altitude version). With an empty weight of over 1,800 kg, its payload capacity was projected at 350 kg. Two NPO Saturn 36 MT turboprops developing 100 hp each were to drive three-bladed propellers. Its range was estimated to be 625 miles, operating altitude 35,000 ft and endurance around 24 hours. Not much has been heard about it in recent months.

RUSTOM-2, another UAV in the Rustom series, was renamed Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS-BH-201, or TAPAS 201). It made its first flight in 2016, but had major technical problems. TAPAS BH 201 is projected to have an operating altitude of 30,000 ft, service ceiling of 32,000 ft and the ability to take off from runways at 11,000 ft. The two-tonne MALE UAV will be able to carry a 350 kg payload of ELINT and COMINT suites, Synthetic Aperture Radar and other medium and long-range electro optical sensors to capture imagery to undertake ISR missions. The Rustom models were initially to be fitted with Helina missiles, a DRDO product, but not much has been heard of that in recent months. A first Research and Development prototype made its maiden flight in November 2016, and the testing of a higher powered engine commenced in February 2018, as user configuration flight trials started. Reportedly, six TAPAS BH 201 prototypes have been produced. In September last year, a developmental prototype crashed soon after it took off from the DRDO’s Aeronautical Testing Range located at Chitradurga, approximately 250 km Northwest of Bengaluru. It will take a long time for TAPAS BH 201 to be a UAV of operational use to the IAF although the DRDO has announced that it will be ready for operational use by 2020. Interestingly, while RUSTOM-1 is listed on the ADE site, Rustom H and RUSTOM-2 do not find any mention as they are not yet operational.

In 2014, the DRDO had unveiled Panchi, a wheeled version of the Nishant, but its future is as yet uncertain. Panchi is launcher-based tactical UAV with capability of conventional take off and landing. It is integrated with an all- composite landing gear and has improved flight envelope and endurance. It has a stabilised payload platform to carry daylight camera, infrared camera and laser designator. It is powered with an indigenously developed rotary Wankel engine. Several flights have been conducted.

Another UAV under development by ADE is Abhyas, a High-speed Expendable Aerial Target (HEAT) which offers an aerial threat scenario for practice of weapon systems. It is designed for autonomous flying with the help of an autopilot and has Radar Cross Section (RCS), Visual and IR augmentation systems required for weapon practice. Abhyas was successfully flight tested in May 2019.

Following on from Lakshya 1, the Lakshya 2 is a target for weapon systems like radar-guided and heat-seeking Surface-to-Air Missiles and Air-to-Air Missiles. According to the ADE site, it has a scoring system capable of calculating the miss distance of weapons accurately, has an integrated digital flight control processor, autonomous flight capability in low level flight. Transfer of Technology has been given to L&T. Lakshya Weapon Delivery Configuration has also been developed and several weapon delivery sorties have been completed including with live weapons.

The NETRA V Series is a lightweight, autonomous UAV for surveillance and recce operations jointly developed by DRDO’s Research & Development Establishment and ideaForge Technology Pvt. Ltd., a Mumbai-based private company. It weighs 1.5 kg and is constructed of carbon fibre composites. It uses quadcopters to provide lift and control giving a VTOL capability. It has no moving parts other than the rotors, motors and transmissions and hence, it requires very low maintenance. A backpack case allows operators to carry the system to field locations to serve as the base station. It also contains the power supply, military-grade controller, hand-held operator console and the communication systems. CRPF and BSF are the users and the ITBP has also used it in the past. It is currently being used in CBRN Emergency Management Training Courses. However, it has limited use for the IAF.

The DRDO also has initiated studies and research to develop an autonomous UCAV called Aura which it describes as long-range, self-defending, high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon carrying capabilities. Aura’s design is an all-wing concept akin to the Boeing Phantom Ray UCAV which is being developed to carry laser-guided ammunition or other bombs. It is expected to have stealth properties to make it undetectable by radar and thus would be suitable for cross border strikes. However, the absence of any hype about the project from DRDO spokespersons indicates that its consummation is quite far away.

In pursuance of international UAV trends, the ADE has developed Micro and Mini UAVs in collaboration with CSIR-NAL for ISR missions. These vehicles have an endurance of 20 minutes to an hour. Reportedly, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has been cleared by the MoD to commence work on the development of an Unmanned Tejas, India’s Light Combat Aircraft. This development may contribute to India’s indigenous stealth autonomous UCAV programme albeit at characteristic public sector leisurely velocity. In the distant future, it may evoke interest from the IAF although the IAF is not very enthusiastic about the manned version itself.

As can be seen from above, few small UAV projects initiated by the DRDO have had some success, mostly in the areas of Micro UAVs (MAVs), mini UAVs, tactical UAVs and MALE UAVs, where the designs were started from scratch, but integration was undertaken with the help of foreign companies. However, there still has not been a significant UAV programme that has been successful. The programmes under development too do not hold great promise from the IAF’s point of view. These programmes do appear to be wrapped in uncertainty about features and timeframes for operationalisation. In any case, the past history of DRDO UAVs does not encourage much enthusiasm. Succinctly put, indigenous unmanned systems development is unlikely to satisfy the IAF’s growing needs of such systems in the near future and with the public sector at the lead. Private sector participation and significant Transfer of Technology are required to make indigenous UAV production meaningful.

Possible UAV Acquisitions

The additions to the existing IAF’s Israeli inventories were discussed above. In addition, there has been speculation about non-Israeli UAVs/UCAVs being sought by the IAF. One of these is the Guardian which the Indian Navy is getting at an estimated cost of $2 billion for 22. It belongs to the Predator family of drones and is optimised for maritime surveillance. The IAF may get the Predator-B designated MQ-9 Reaper by the US Air Force. It can carry up to 1.7 tonne of external stores, including sensors, anti-tank missiles and guided bombs, weighing up to 230 kg each. The heavier payload gives the flexibility of striking diverse targets on the ground. However, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in 2017, reports emerged about the acquisition of 100 Predator C Avenger for the IAF. The Avengers incorporate stealth technology and can carry synthetic aperture radar. They are capable of flying with payloads of up to 1,400 to 1,600 kg including missiles and bombs and have an endurance of 16 to 20 hours. The jet powered model can fly up to 2,900 km and stay airborne for 18 hours. A deal for 22 Predators Guardian UAVs for the Indian Navy was also reported during the PM’s visit. More recently, there have been conflicting reports about India’s MoD and the Pentagon working on a standardised version of the Predator B Reaper for use by all three Indian services (ten each). However, the acquisition of a US UAV/UCAV is unlikely to provide any impetus to indigenous UAV endeavours in terms of Transfer of Technology.

Concluding Remarks

DRDO organisations such as the ADE, National Aerospace Laboratories, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics Limited have been working on projects yet to produce noteworthy results. Private organisations such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), ideaForge Technology Pvt. Ltd., and Edall Systems are involved in the development or part manufacture of these UAVs in collaboration with DRDO. Academic institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay and IIT Kanpur are also playing a role in the development of these Indian UAVs. However, despite Prime Minister Modi’s personal backing of the ‘Make in India’ programme and several policy initiatives to encourage it, indigenous progress has been very slow in contrast to the developments worldwide. The single major factor has been the internal inefficiencies of the DRDO with its work culture not up to the task of producing leading-edge technologies. The DRDO’s painfully slow progress and very low levels of technology and the high prices of import have kept the IAF inventories low.

The US and Israel are the leading manufacturers of unmanned systems. Israel has so far proved a reliable provider of UAVs to India and is the main supplier. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, Heron 1 (Israeli name Machatz 1), was offered to India for validation and trial in the variegated terrain and climate conditions prevalent in India, thus making India its first user nation. Israel can be persuaded to partner with Indian private sector entities for development of indigenous unmanned systems.

The fact that Israel is the leading producer of unmanned systems and its readiness to cooperate with India should be exploited for nurturing the Indian private sector. Needless to say, there would be resistance from the well entrenched but grossly incompetent public sector and that is where the government has to show resolve if India has to move forward in this arena. Private participation is the first and foremost option that holds the promise of meeting Indian military needs of unmanned systems. Simultaneously, the public sector’s modest achievements so far can be built upon to advance towards bigger and more lethal systems – with Israeli help if possible. India has the capability to be at the leading edge of such technologies, but its R&D is stunted on account of its being largely in the inherently inefficient public sector.

Recent increase in interest by Indian private sector to cultivate unmanned systems, largely driven by commercial interests after the promulgation of a policy in civilian use of drones, is an encouraging development. The enhanced efficiency, productivity and result orientation would be an assured consequence of private participation. India has been discussing ‘Project Cheetah’ with Israel under which almost all the drones of the three services would be turned into high capability attack drones and their surveillance capabilities would also be enhanced. Perhaps, this is a strategic opportunity where Israel’s commercial and IAF’s security interests are congruent.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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2 thoughts on “IAF’s Unmanned Capability: Prospects for Indigenisation

  1. The Group Captain does say that the indigenous UAVs do not measure up to IAF’s needs. But he does not say WHAT are these requirements and why do they have t have a winged structure. Should not the requirement be in terms of range, loiter time, camera/ sensor capability and self defence needs?
    Only if the IAF makes public its needs, will the Indian start-ups even come to take an interest. And that is the only way of getting any results.

  2. It is a shame that India and DRDO are working on the UAV projects for 30 years and little to show for. DRDO is very disorganized and spreading too thin. It is compounded by a lack of manufacturing ability. DRDO should focus on one kind of drone like Rustom II. There is really no point to manufacture a variety of unarmed and armed drones. If you look at the successful drone manufacturers like General Atomics, you see that they produce only a limited number of drones, normally one or two types,. After two decades of very successful drone manufacturing, GA only produces four varieties of very closely inter-related drones. DRDO spent 30 years, it is time now to give India a solid drone platform that can be depended on.

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