UAVs and UCAVs in India Way to Go

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 5. Nov - Dec 2018
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Increasing role of UAVs and UCAVs in defining and shaping the nature of operations
Lt Gen VK Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
Thursday, December 6, 2018

Since their induction into military service, UAVs and UCAVs have steadily assumed an increasing role in defining and shaping the nature of operations. The article emphasises the urgency for India to procure  those with cutting edge technologies, simultaneously  building indigenous capabilities by harnessing the potential in the private sector

The advent of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and their combatised versions (UAVs/UCAVs) have actually brought about a "revolution" on the battlefield. While on one hand these are seen as an "attackers delight" owing to many of their combat virtues, on the other, these have proved to be a “defender's nightmare" for the challenges faced in bringing them down matching the cost of kill with the cost of target. Besides the above duel, manned and unmanned platforms are being teamed up in joint missions yielding disproportionate results.

This article traces the growth of the Indian UAV story and suggests a view point on the way ahead.

A Chronicle

The indigenous efforts to design and manufacture UAVs commenced way back in late seventies/early eighties by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

In Sep 1980, the Govt sanctioned a project for the development of a Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) to conduct live firing of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The Project had a run cycle from 1980 to 1994 with PTAs (named Lakshya) getting inducted into the Services in late nineties. The PTA had a maximum speed of 0.7 Mach, a range of 150 km and a service ceiling of 9000 m.

The first induction of Searcher Mk 1 UAV from Israel took place in 1998. Searcher, manufactured by the Israeli Armament Industry (IAI) was a first-generation basic reconnaissance (recce) vehicle of the 1980 design with payloads consisting of basic optics and sensors capable of day light recce and target reporting. As technology advanced, IAI came out with an upgraded version of the above UAV which was named Searcher Mk II. This was a multi-mission tactical UAV with an improved engine, a new navigation system and an advanced communication system.

Searcher Mk II had better intelligence gathering, surveillance, target acquisition and recce (ISTAR) capability owing to its electro optical (EO), infra red (IR) and TV based triple payload besides a synthetic aperture radar (SAR). It was capable of line of sight (LOS) and beyond LOS reportage. The UAV had a speed of 200 km/hr, an endurance of 18 hrs and a service ceiling of 6100 m.  Indian Army operated a combination of Searcher Mk 1 and Mk II drones (quantum not mentioned) across its northern and western borders for ISTAR and other roles as stated above.

The period from 2003-2017 saw a continuous improvement in the PTA design and capabilities (ushering in Lakshya II) that mainly included total autonomous flight, capability of launch from any place with a mobile launcher, sustained flight at low levels (15-30 m) depicting cruise missile attack and more. There were numerous user-related 'dis-satisfactions' some of which could be addressed by the DRDO.

Taking forward the Searcher story, there were reports in 2005 of India using the IAI built Heron UAVs for search and rescue (SAR) operations during the tsunami disaster. Heron is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV with a range of 350 km, an endurance of 52 hrs and a service ceiling of 32800 ft.

India's march into the domain of UCAVs started sometime in Sep 2015 when an open source reported that there was a likelihood of India purchasing Heron TP UCAV from Israel. This UCAV had an endurance of 36 hrs and a service ceiling of 45000 ft, a payload of 1000 kg and a range of 300 km. It could be equipped with multiple payloads like maritime petrol radar, synthetic aperture radar, moving target indicator, EO/IR payloads for signal, communication and image intelligence gathering (SIGINT, COMINT, IMINT) besides missiles.

In Jul 2018, during PM Modi's visit to Israel, open sources reported the likelihood of India getting the armed Heron TP drones from Israel which were first displayed at the Aero India 2017 by IAI. The report was of India having signed for 10 armed drones in a deal worth $400 million. The final outcome and the current status of the deal is not known in the open source.

The Indian Air Force also had another variation of an IAI UAV called Harpy ( IAIHarop II) which is a loitering ammunition designed to attack radar systems. It is an anti radiation missile which automatically homes on to radar emissions thus aiding in suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) operations. Harpy has a range of 500 km and carries a high explosive warhead.

Getting back to the indigenous trail, after the decision was made in 1988 that DRDO will develop an indigenous UAV, the first to be successfully test flown in 1996 was Nishant UAV, a basic design for ISTAR missions with a range of 100 km, an endurance for 4:30 hrs and a service ceiling of 13000 ft. The predecessor to Nishant was the Kapothaka UAV. It was reported that after all the four UAVs supplied to the Army in 2013 had crashed, Army in 2015 had put the Phase II induction of this UAV on hold.

The next useful product from a joint venture (JV)  between DRDO and a private firm Idea Forge came out in 2010 in the form of a lightweight autonomous UAV named "Netra". Netra which had four rotors (quadcopter) was made of carbon fibre composites. It was a mini UAV that weighed only 1.5 Kgs and had a high-resolution CCD camera as payload with a pan/tilt zoom for accurate surveillance. It could detect human activity up to 500 m.  Netra had a range of 2.5 km, a speed of 30  km/hr and a service ceiling of 300 m. It is in Service since 2012.

The Rustom Series

One of the major developments from the DRDO has been the Rustom series of MALE UAV which were meant to supplement/replace the Heron series. Rustom had two variants, namely Rustom 1, and Rustom II. The name Rustom is taken from the name of Prof Rustom Damania the head of DRDO's Light Canard Research Aircraft (LCRA) project, from where the Rustom design is derived.

Rustom-I has a speed of 150 km/hr, a range of 250 km, service ceiling of 26000 ft and an endurance of 12 hrs. Its 95 kg payload is capable of total ISTAR support.

Rustom-II has two variants, Rustom II (TAPAS-BH-201, also called Rustom H) and Rustom II (TAPAS-201). TAPAS stands for Tactical Advanced Platform For Aerial Surveillance. In the Rustom II class, TAPAS BH was for non-combat role while TAPAS-201 was planned as a UCAV. Rustom II is a larger UAV with a speed of 225 km/hr, range of 350 km, an endurance of 24 hrs and a service ceiling of 35000 ft. All these capabilities are a tangible enhancement from the Rustom I class.

The first successful flight of Rustom II took place on 25 Feb 2018. The UAV is designed to carry EO and IR sensors, SAR, laser designator and other situational awareness payloads. It is made of composite material, has high aspect ratio for low induced drag besides its many other flight critical systems are based on reliable and redundant data links.

Besides the Rustom line of development and preceding it, DRDO tried to develop several other UAVs. For instance, there was Gagan UAV being jointly developed by DRDO and HAL. Planned to have a range of 250 km and a service ceiling of 20,000 ft. The current status of this project is not known in the open source.

There is another UAV named AURA which stands for Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft. Open sources report of AURA as a tactical stealth UAV built largely with composites and capable of delivering laser guided strike weapons. DRDO's Aeronautical development Agency (ADA) is developing this UAV with IIT Kanpur and is likely to have its first test flight in end 2018 or early 2019. It is also called Ghatak UAV and the prototype has been named SWiFT (stealth wing flying test bed).

Reflection and Analysis

While the Indian UAV story started with Searcher series of UAVs graduating to Heron class, the DRDO's effort to develop a series of target drones and UAVs preceded the first induction of Searcher by several years.

Though the DRDO has delivered some success stories like the Lakshya, Netra and Rustom, there have been consistent time and cost overruns and many an unfulfilled promise. A prominent one among these has been the promise of delivering a UCAV in the Rustom II class ( TAPAS 201). This hope died when DRDO in Feb 2018 admitted that it will not be possible to integrate missiles with the Rustom series of UAVs.

With this can be connected two other developments. One, the report of a deal of 10 Heron TP missile armed drones at $ 400 million during the PM's visit to Israel in Jul 2018 and two, the report of the likely import of 22 MQ9 Predator-B long range UCAVs from US through the institutional arrangement of Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) getting further facilitated by Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (COMCASA) signed during the 2+2 dialogue in Sep 2018.

The prime need of UAVs and UCAVs in tomorrow's battlefield requires no justification. Reportedly, Army has a plan to equip UAVs down to the battalion level, while the Air force has plans for fully operational squadrons of ISTAR UAVs and UCAVs. Navy also has plans for a comprehensive UAV/UCAV foot print. The plan is also to induct multiple mini and micro UAVs for short range surveillance and nuclear, biological and chemical detection in the battle field.

There are multiple reports and assessments predicting an exponential growth of UAV market in India. According to one report, the future requirement for UAVs in the period 2014-27 is likely to be 60-100 for the Indian Navy, 300-500 for the Indian Airforce and 1500-2000 for the Indian Army. With this projection in force, the UAV market size in India is likely to grow from $1.6 Bn in 2014-15 to about 4 Bn USD in 2027. Another report from a global market intelligence and advisory firm BIS states that by 2021 the Indian UAV market will reach $ 885.7 million.

Who will drive such a growth? Some points in response to this query are attempted.

Till as late as Oct 2014, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) notified that till such time the guidelines (which were being prepared) for the use of UAVs are issued, no non Govt agency, organisation, or an individual will launch a UAV for "any purpose whatsoever" in the Indian Civil Airspace. This blanket restriction combined with the preference (read primacy) given to the DRDO to grab the "whole" of UAV development requirement from the three Services effectively stymied the growth of the private sector in measuring up to meet the demands of the military, as well civil sector. It was too late in the day when in Nov 2017, DGCA finally issued the draft guidelines for flying of UAVs in the national air space.

With all the above restrictions, bottlenecks and uneven playing field, while quite few Start ups in the UAV segment closed shops, several others stayed on. Fortunately, the last 3-4 years have seen a steady rise in their growth as many big players acquired industrial licenses to produce UAVs and associated systems/subsystems. 

Some of the prominent private industry players in this sector include Tata Advanced Systems, Ashok Leyland, Alpha Design Technologies, Aurora Integrated Systems, Cyient Solutions and Systems, Dynamatic Technologies, IDEA Forge, Jubiliant Aeronautics, MKU, Spec Systems Ltd, Taneja Aerospace, Kadet Defence Systems and more.

In a welcome development it was reported on 05 Sep 2018 that Indian Army’s Northern command has selected SpyLite mini UAV made by Cyient Solutions and Systems in a Joint Venture (JV) with Israel's Blue Bird Systems.

While the above is in brief the Indian UAV story, the chronicle will come a full circle  if a passing word is stated as to the UAVs and UCAVs of Pakistan and China.

Capabilities: Potential Adversaries

The humble beginnings of the Pakistani indigenous UAV development programme can be traced to a period  around 1997-98, which was the time when India was going in for the  import of Searcher Mk 1 UAV while the DRDO was already a few years into its R&D effort of designing indigenous UAVs.

In a period spanning some 10-15 years thereafter, Pakistan, in a combined effort of the public and the private sector developed a series of indigenous target drones and UAVs. These include Ababeel and Bazz target drones and Uquaab, Jasoos, Mukhbar and Flemingo UAVs. Other products from the private vendors have been Vector, Shadow, Vision, Nishan Mk II, Border Eagle and Hornet UAVs. All these taken together span a range bracket of 5-200 km and endurance range of 30 mins to 7-8 hrs.

An important development in Pakistan has been the Burraq UCAV developed indigenously. Burraq  has a range of 1000 km, its maximum speed is 215 km/hr and the service ceiling is 7500 meters. It carries two Barq air-to-surface laser guided missiles. Barq, which means lightening in Urdu, is a single stage missile capable of destroying both stationery, as well as, moving targets.

Another important development has been the report that China is likely to sell 48 numbers of its high-end reconnaissance, strike and multi-role Wing Loong II UCAVs to Pakistan. Wing Loong II is a MALE UCAV developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group. It has a range of 4000 Km, an endurance of 20 hrs, with a service ceiling of 5000 meters.

With Burraq and Wing Loong II on board, Pakistan is likely to have a tangible UCAV capability besides having and operating  a large number of UAVs in ISTAR missions both indigenous, as well as, from several other countries (ASN 105 A and 206 - China, Luna- Germany, Snipe - UK, Falco-Italy and Seeker - South Africa).

China is way ahead as an UAV, UCAV country, with an impressive range of capabilities both in the ISTAR as well as strike domain. In the process of its military modernisation China has carefully factored unmanned systems into its strategic planning. President Xi remarked in 2016, "UAVs are important operational force in the modern battle field"

While the range and depth of China's UAVs and UCAV holdings is large, its main UCAVs are Wing Loong I (payload 200 Kg, service ceiling 7500 metres), Wing Loong II, CH3 (payload 80 Kg, service ceiling 4000 metres), CH4 (payload 345 Kg, service ceiling 7200 metres), and CH5 (payload 1200 Kg, service ceiling 7000 metres).

In the recently conducted Zhuhai Air Show (6-11 Nov 2018), China showcased its latest UAV and UCAV capabilities. Significant amongst these were the CH-7 high altitude long endurance stealth UCAV (Payload 2000 kg, Speed Mach 0.75). CH5 is a fly-by-wire  tail less flying wing  which is still under development and is slated to enter service by 2022.

Another product on display was WJ -700 high altitude high speed UCAV (Payload 3500 Kg, Endurance 20 hrs) designed for long range anti ship missions, anti-radiation missions and as an EW platform. Also, on display was the JY 300 UAV with its innovative phased array radar strips providing an ISTAR range of 1000 km.

Our potential adversaries especially China thus continue their march towards building and further strengthening their unmanned capability.

Way to go

Reverting to India’s UAV aspirations, based on the foregoing, a view point on the way ahead is stated below: -

The huge projected demand in the UAV market in the foreseeable future must be seen as a great opportunity that can usher an exponential growth of this segment of the industry both in the public, as well as, private sector flying on the "enabling wings of Make-in-India".

The DRDO must try to reduce and eliminate its huge time and cost overruns and come good on its committed projects. In particular, the following: -

o             Rustom II must be operationalised at the earliest. Open sources  have not registered any significant move forward after the first flight trial.

o             Now that the UCAV commitment on Rustom II (TAPAS 201) is a NO GO, ways must be found to produce a UCAV for the Indian Defence forces. In that, not only Aura UCAV must be realised by ensuring its test flight in late 2018 or early 2019 as stated, but also, efforts be made on the JV route to realise an indigenous UCAV. With the Heron TP or the Predator deal already on board, some of this is likely to become a possibility.

The bottom line is, that the perpetual dependence on the foreign vendors for UCAV must be put to an end, sooner than later.

While the SpyLite order is actually an order from one of the Army Commands through its own resources (Army Commander's Special Financial Powers) there is an urgent need for an "attitudinal change" at the level of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to "fully load" the private industry which is far more capable than yesteryears but is actually "starving" for orders to deliver.

For technologies that are still a far cry, JV is the way to go. There are any number of foreign players ready to chip in. Such JVs must be on "our terms" which mean joint development, joint production, buy back and "transfer of capability" (implying know why) rather than a measly Transfer of Technology (ToT).

The reported intention of the MoD to involve the private sector in a big way to meet the future requirement of UAVs is re-assuring. That intention being put to practice is indeed the need of the hour.


Military Technology