Requirement of UCAV

Conceived in 2007 the Indian unmanned strike air vehicle (USAV)-an attack version of the reconnaissance and surveillance and strike type of unmanned aerial vehicle that has had an impressive record of precision drone attacks against Islamist terrorists in the tribal belt in Pakistan’s Waziristan - should come out of the project definition stage by 2015. It is projected to be ready for squadron service by 2020. One will have to say “god willing” given the fact that the Kaveri gas turbine engine has failed to be ready to be integrated to the production series of the Tejas light combat aircraft - the original mission for which it was created.

To rescue something of value from the GTX engine the Defence Research and Development Organisation decided to develop and utilize the core of the original GTX Kaveri engine (named Kabini) for other applications like power plant for India’s unmanned strike air vehicle. Other intended applications include power plant for the proposed Indian medium combat aircraft; replacing the German MTU engine in the indigenous Arjun with a gas turbine and retrofit the engine in all armored fighting vehicles like the BMP-2 which currently use diesel power plants; improve a marine gas turbine engine for powering the ships of the Indian Navy; and the Indian Railways has expressed interest in running its proposed bullet trains using gas turbine engines.

Engine requirement

The prospects appear to be bright but the engine has to be ready in all respects to match these responsibilities. It needs to be remembered that the Gas Turbine Research Establishment has failed in its primary responsibility of producing a gas turbine engine for an indigenous light combat aircraft. Hopefully, it has learned the requisite lessons and is able to rectify its mistakes.

One major problem is that the main Kaveri engine has a tendency to spit out turbine blades severely damaging the engine cowling (covering) and other contiguous portions. With so many projects being dependent on it, Kabini and its promoters, the DRDO, need to live up to expectations. Its other shortcoming of being overweight by nearly 135 kg ought to have been overcome given that India is capable of producing the titanium sponge the hard but lightweight metal and work it into sheets and moulds. The engine mount if fashioned out of titanium will show a marked reduction in the weight of the engine. The whole 135 kg overweight metal could be eliminated.

India’s defence posture depends to a large extent on the creation and operation of several different kinds of unmanned strike vehicles and it is to be hoped that this time the GTRE and the DRDO do not flatter to deceive because too much depends on the ability to deliver a credible weapons load to all points north of the Himalayas from Arunachal Pradesh in the east to the Ladakh sector in Jammu and Kashmir in the west. This is largely because of the policy of deliberate neglect of infrastructural projects on the ground by successive governments of all political hues in India. There is a gap in military capabilities that is begging to be closed in the defence of the Himalayas.

Many road and bridge projects are behind schedule by several years which is the primary reason for lack of an airborne backup to trans-Himalayan operations. Even if the roads are ready when hostilities break out, the capability to deliver a credible weapons load of bombs, missiles and other precision guided munitions will remain if the Chinese juggernaut has to be stopped deep inside the Tibet Autonomous Region instead of inside India as happened in 1962. Only then will the Chinese be compelled to agree to a Line of Actual Control that is legally demarcated and delineated on the ground. Currently it talks about peace and tranquility along the LAC and conducts intrusions with impunity at any point of its choice. Its several hundred intrusions into the Ladakh sector is an ominous indicator of its intentions and the Government of India cannot ignore the implications of it.

Air power

The Indian Air Force has positioned its most potent air strike platform, the Sukhoi-30 MKI in the north-east close to the border with China and simultaneously reactivated its forward air bases in the Ladakh sector in the north-west. Hopefully, this proves to be a dissuasive deployment and keeps the Chinese quiescent.

There has been much talk about the mistake made in not using India’s air power during the Chinese attack of 1962. The “fear of escalation of conflict” concept cannot be valid when the enemy is at the doorstep of our divisional headquarters at Tezpur in Assam. The Chinese stopped on their own volition after having achieved all the war aims its leaders had planned with such precision. If we had used our air power at least some of those plans could have gone awry. And it would not have looked like a walkover. The requirement and role of air power thus is crucial to the defence of the northern frontier in relation to both China and Pakistan.

The Indian Air Force is low on aircraft fighter strength vis-à-vis China. At one time it was estimated by a team of experts that it would require 46 fighter aircraft squadrons for the IAF to be reasonably effective in a two-front war scenario. The IAF currently has 32 fighter squadrons out of a sanctioned strength of 39+. All this is to happen between 2020 and 2025. Before this, the Indian Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle is scheduled to become operational by 2020. Given that it is half-way through 2014-just six years away the GTRE and Aeronautical Development Agency will have to work hard to remove the kinks and keep to schedule.

The weapons package has already been decided. It will consist of laser-guided bombs, air-to-surface precision guided munitions and seek to replicate the very largely accurate delivery of its payload on target at all times. The US Predator drones have helped eliminate dozens of top and major leaders of the Taliban/Al Qaeda. The Predator UACVs are armed with the Hellfire air-to-surface missile. It has picked off individual terrorist leaders with great accuracy. In the case of India it has incorporated a laser guidance kit to the nose-cone of the Indian Ordnance Factory dumb bombs. The byproduct has proved to be very accurate.

It will require a different type of “pilot”, sitting as he will be several hundred kilometers away. The surveillance and reconnaissance electronic suite will have to be able to deliver clear images both in day and in night of potential targets on his console to enable him to guide the USAV to its destination and return after delivering the strike.