There are drones in the sky, in R(D centers and more varieties are making their debut as the advantages of pilotless aircraft are becoming more obvious by the day.
India is involved in a plethora of experiments to create drones for different uses within the country but given the manner in which short-term requirements are being met with imports the chances of a ‘Made in India” product with an assured self-sustaining base in the marketplace finding its way into actual service with the Armed Forces are not bright.
India has acquired some expertise in pilotless target aircraft with the creation of the Lakshya from where there has been a product improvement in the form of the Abhyas high speed expendable aerial target.
Even as the technology demonstrator was being tried out by the Indian Air Force (the machine is used for target practice by both air-to-air fighter aircraft as well as land based anti-aircraft artillery/missiles) there were reports that a global tender for the supply of 225 pilotless target vehicles has been floated.
The heartening aspect is that experience gained in the creation of the gas turbine Kaveri engine for the Tejas light combat aircraft is being used to create an engine for the indigenous AURA unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) for use by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy.
In fact, a great deal of ‘self-reliance’ flows from an indigenous power plant in both military and civil aviation.
Though the Kaveri engine has failed the Tejas light combat aircraft (it is being powered by an American engine which is going to be replaced by another American engine because the current one does not produce enough thrust to enable full utilization of the aircraft’s flight envelope for combat purposes), the inner core of the Kaveri engine has lent itself to use in UAVs.
This is a factor that needs to be exploited to the full, especially when it is known that India is the largest purchaser of UAVs in the world.
Such overdependence on foreign sources of supply cannot be eyed with equanimity. It is a dependence that must be addressed as soon as possible.
Hopeful signs came when Defence Minister Monohar Parrikar informed Parliament that an improved version of the Kaveri known as the Ghatak is in the works and it is intended to power the indigenous UCAVs.
The AURA makes eminent sense in the Indian context given the manner in which the body of the Indian pilot who was shot down by the Pakistanis during the Kargil war was mutilated in violation of the Geneva Convention.
However, even here the possible negative effect on the indigenous project needs to be kept in mind. Ten Heron TP armed UAVs have been bought by India.
Hopefully it is just a stop gap arrangement to plug a perceived requirements and it does not degenerate into a replacement for the Indian effort.
This is what has happened in the Rafale fighter aircraft project where an initial order for 36 aircraft was projected.
The outgoing Chief of Air Staff made out a case for more than 200 of these types of aircraft for the IAF to fill the gap created by the decommissioning of the aged MiG-21 aircraft. This gap was supposed to have been filled by the Tejas aircraft.
Since the 80s the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s subsidiary the Aeronautics Development Establishment, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s branch the National Aeronautics Limited and the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd have jointly and severally worked to produce unmanned aerial vehicles.
Over the years there has been a great deal of competence building with as many as 16 different kinds and shapes of UAVs being developed largely by the three above named institutions.
But there is very little to show by way of operational systems. Apart for the Lakshya, Abhyas, the Nishant and encouraging signs of interest by the National Security Guard, the CRPF and the National Institute of Disaster Management in the collaborative project known as Imperial Eagle.
It is an extremely lightweight fixed wing vehicle capable of being hand launched with day or night sensors for surveillance and reconnaissance.
However, with a payload of just 250 grams the kind of cameras it can carry would restrict the coverage. There has been extensive civil sector cooperation in putting this project together.
The other indigenous UAV that has entered the market is the quadro-copter Netra the product of a joint venture of DRDO laboratories and a Mumbai firm.
The Netra has been very usefully deployed in search and rescue and disaster management related problems.
The Netra is lightweight, can be operated from a small clearing in a forest area, can touch an altitude of 100 meters and send back to the operator’s console good definition photographs of what it sees in its flight path.
It has disadvantages: Its endurance is limited to 30 minutes per battery charge; and it cannot operate in the rain.
Nonetheless it is an operational platform and improvements and innovations can be introduced as an when they present themselves.
There are reports that the civilian partner has already developed an all-weather version and has worked on extending both the range and duration of its flight. That is how it should be.
Efforts have also been made to meet the users’ requirement for a low level interception trainer to enable air defence gunners and missiles to engage enemy aircraft and missiles flying at treetop height on land and in sea-skimming mode at or about 15 meters above the surface of the ocean.
This aspect is being taken care of in the second version of the Lakshya expendable target UAV. The new product has been able to demonstrate manoeuvres in flight lasting 30 minutes.
It was programmed to dive down from a height of 800 meters to 12 meters over the surface of the sea, loiter for a specified time and executing an auto climbout-a manoeuvre intended that as far as possible each sortie provides the guns and missiles on board ships to successfully engage and incoming enemy projectile well out of reach of its target.
One hurdle that has persisted in the joint ventures with the private sector is the insistence by the latter that there should be assured attractive contracts so that they can retrieve their investments.
The government has made some improvement in procedures in acquisition to ensure that private sector research and development in defence is compensated so that there is no infructuous expenditure and all such efforts are rewarded once a working prototype is produced.
There are high expectations of two long-pending projects in the UAV sector-the Rustom I and the Rustom II which have been in incubation for several decades now.
There are three versions of the Rustom under development: One has an endurance of 12 hours; the second is a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) configuration; the third is being nurtured to fit the role of an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) of the kind the US has been using with such deadly effect in the Afghanistan/Pakistan (AfPak) salient.