With UAS programme still to catch up, India is back to US
Amid the need to counter an increasingly assertive China at sea and also along the land borders, New Delhi is looking to source two variations of an unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or Drones. One for a sea-going role and another one, a weaponised version for use over-land.
On the list are three products of the Predator-family of UAS made by US giant General Atomics (GA). Talks are on for the past few months. Off these three, two could be chosen.
The military stand-off between India and China since early May this year has led to a serious situation and New Delhi has conveyed to the US its fresh interest in armed drones from General Atomics .
Indian authorities estimate the deal to be between $ 3.5 billion to $ 4 Billion, the figure could vary depending upon the configuration of the UAS chosen.
Each of the drones cost less than the each of Dassault Aviation’s Rafale jets. India, in 2016 purchased, 36 planes for Rupees 59,000 crore ( approx $ 8.4 billion as per dollar-rupee rates of that time). The drones have an endurance many times over any manned fighter jet in the world. Also it does not need a trained pilot to fly over enemy. It fires latest precision guided ammunition and missiles like the ‘hell-fire’. India is looking for a healthy mix of jets and UAS, as the air-space on its borders with Pakistan to the west and China to the north, is tightly contested.
The types of drones India wants
Indian establishment is looking the Predator-B series from General Atomics . Off the Predator-B series, India is studying the MQ9 Reaper and also the MQ9B-Sky Guardian. “MQ-9B Sky Guardian is the next generation of the multi-mission Predator-B fleet,” says the General Atomics website while describing it.
Either of the one could be selected. Both are capable of surveillance, reconnaissance, locating target and destroying it with weapons. The Predator-B has long been used by the US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The rugged Himalayas, which create a boundary between the India and China have vast areas which are physically inaccessible due to the terrain – perennial snow and altitude — from the Indian side, but have rather easier access from the Chinese side.
The second variety caters to India’s need for marine drones to patrol the sea lanes of communication. For this it is looking at the MQ9 Sea Guardian, another one from GA. This would buttress the Indian Navy’s fleet of Boeing P8I maritime surveillance planes in keeping an eye in the Indian Ocean. One of the busiest shipping routes passes close to India before it passes across the Malacca straits into the South China Sea and beyond.
Although the US had initially offered to sell 30 Sea Guardians (the unarmed naval variant) The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force want a combat drone especially in these tense times. The freedom of doing multiple tasks using the Predator-B series is the added advantage.
What are the GA drones
The Predator-B can fire missiles like the hellfire. A Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine, integrated with Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEEC), powers it.
The Predator-B also named as the MQ 9 Reaper by the US Air force model has an endurance of over 27 hours, speeds of 240 KTAS, it can operate up to 50,000 feet, and has a 3,850 pound (1746 kilogram) payload capacity that includes 3,000 pounds (1361 kilograms) of external stores.
The Predator-B is equipped with a fault-tolerant flight control system and triple redundant avionics system architecture. It is engineered to meet and exceed manned aircraft reliability standards.
The MQ-9B Sky Guardian, the upgrade of the Predator-B is highly modular and is easily configured with a variety of payloads to meet mission requirements. The aircraft is capable of carrying multiple mission payloads and includes a state-of-the art Detect and Avoid (DAA) system including space, weight, and power provisions to enable the retrofitting of an airborne Due Regard Radar (DRR) for operation in non-cooperative airspace.
MQ-9B Sky Guardian set an endurance record as the aircraft when it flew in a unarmed configuration for more than 48 consecutive hours in April 2017. It has a range of over 6,000 nautical miles and is equipped with nine hard-points for sensor or weapons carriage with over 2,100 kg (4,000 lbs.) of available payload, which is more than that of the Predator-B.
It has nine hard points, allowing more external stores/payload-carrying stations.
The Marine drone, the MQ9 Sea Guardian, carries a Lynx multi-mode radar for littoral surveillance capability including an Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) mode, as well as multi-contact detection, cueing and tracking functions.
Why has India moved in now
India has struggled with its own UAS, especially the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) and the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) varieties. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) India lead research body has an independent unmanned surveillance air vehicle on the drawing board, to develop a solar-powered HALE UAV.
In the MALE category a TAPAS-BH-201 (Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201) has been flight tested in 2018, but it is yet to start production. The Tapas is what was earlier named Rustom II.
Also the autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), being developed by the DRDO is still to make its first flight. The UCAV will be capable of releasing missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions.
For now India is operating Israeli Heron unarmed drones in eastern Ladakh during the crisis with China. It also has the ‘Harop’ made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). It’s a loitering ‘suicide’ drone that has the capability to hunt illusive ground targets, such as anti-aircraft systems and mobile or concealed ballistic missile launchers. India had spent US $ 1 Billion on the project, some 8-9 years ago.