This Article is Written by Kanak Agarwal
What are Drones/UAVs?
The terms drone and UAV are used interchangeably. DRONE stands for Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment. Humans entirely control drones, and an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) can perform uncrewed flight along a predetermined flight path, and, if needed, the mission parameters can be updated. The term drone usually refers to small or medium-sized quadcopters used for entertainment. However, the term is also used for kamikaze drones with some autonomous capabilities. “Drone” is an old term, and the term UAV is used for the cutting-edge systems being developed today. We shall stick to the term UAV throughout the article.
Purpose of UAVs:
The primary purpose of any UAV is ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance). Armed UAVs are also used to conduct precision strikes and are also used to suppress enemy air defence systems. They are also cheaper than fighter planes and act as the first line of defence in safeguarding our pilots’ lives.
Types of UAVs Based On Mission Type:
- Target and decoy: Provide ground and aerial systems a target and simulate an enemy missile or an aircraft.
- Reconnaissance UAVs: These are used to provide intelligence on the battlefield.
- Combat UAVs (UCAV): Provide attack capability for some high-risk missions. These include precision strikes and kamikaze-style attacks.
- Research and Development UAVs: These are used to refine existing UAV technologies and create new technologies to improve UAV technology.
- Transport UAVs: These are used to transport essential supplies to troops in remote areas.
- Swarm Drone: A significant number of UAVs act in synchronisation autonomously to overwhelm the enemy.
- Loitering Munition: These are kamikaze-style or suicide drones that are mainly used to suppress enemy defences (SEAD).
Types of UAVs Based On Size:
- Nano, Micro, Mini and Small UAVs: These UAVs weigh less than 150 Kg.
- Tactical UAVs: These UAVs weigh between 150 and 600 Kg.
- Strategic UAVs: These include the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) and the High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) class of UAVs. These UAVs weigh more than 600 Kg.
HEAT (High-Speed Expendable Aerial Target):
- DRDO Abhyas was successfully flight tested on 22 October 2021. It was based on the DRDO Lakshya, and the design was refined. It was designed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and will be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It can be used to simulate enemy aircraft, validate various missiles under development, and validate existing missile technologies.
- The DRDO Rustom-I is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) class of UAV and is based on NAL’s Light Canard Research Aircraft (LCRA). It was designed to replace or supplement the IAI Heron UAV in service with the Indian Army. Rustom-I was a technology demonstrator, and the Archer UAV is based on the Rustom-I drone. The upgraded Rustom-I or Archer UAV has an endurance of 12 hours and a range of 220Km with auto take-off and landing (ATOL) capabilities. DRDO plans to test the Archer UAV soon. Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201 or TAPAS BH-201 is the newly christened Rustom-II. It was inspired by the US Predator drones. Its latest test on 16th December 2021 successfully cleared the 25000 ft and 10 hours endurance milestone. It is an armed UAV with ATOL and SATCOM (Satellite Communication) capabilities. It also packs a 220Hp diesel engine, thus making it more fuel-efficient.
DRDO SWiFT and Ghatak UCAV:
- The Stealth Wing Flying Testbed (SWIFT) is a technological demonstrator for the Ghatak UCAV program. The ground trials of the SWIFT prototype were started in June 2021. A naval variant of SWIFT will be used as a deck-based UCAV for the Aircraft carriers of the Indian Navy. It can also be used as a wingman drone for the IAF. It will also be used as a bomber drone for the Indian Army. SWIFT has a range of 200Km, flight endurance of 1 hour, and a maximum altitude of 6 Km. The SWIFT-based Ghatak UCAV will have a maximum take-off weight of 15 tonnes. It will feature a stealthy design and an internal weapons bay. Its features are common with the AMCA program, and the technologies developed for the AMCA will be integrated into this program. The first flight of the Ghatak UCAV is expected to happen in 2024-2025.
Also Read, Understanding AURA UCAV Programme
India-US Joint ALUAV Target Drone (Air-Launched UAV):
- This project was signed between the defence departments of India and the USA under the DTTI (Defence Technology and Trade Initiative) on 30th July 2021. Under this project, DRDO and the US AFRL (Air Force Research Laboratory) will design and develop an Air launched UAV. The UAV will be launched from the loading bay of the IAF’s C-17s, C-130J and maybe in future the C-295 aircraft. The transport aircraft will act as a mothership for the ALUAV.
HAL CATS (Combat Air Teaming System) Warrior:
- The CATS Warrior loyal wingman project was unveiled at Aero India 2021. It is an autonomous wingman drone that will team up with the existing fighter jets of the Indian Air Force. The jets will act as a mothership and control the CATS Warrior. It is an unmanned system, and the mothership will set the mission parameters in real-time. It will carry the Next Generation Close Combat Missile (NGCCM) for the air-air role. In the air-ground role, it will carry the Smart Anti Airfield Weapon (SAAW). It will be equipped with an AESA radar and will be powered by two HTFE-25 engines. It will be coated with stealth coating and being unmanned; its design will be stealth optimized. It will have a range of 1500 Km a max takeoff weight of 2,100 Kg.
Also Read, Decoding HAL CATS Program
- It will also be armed with the ALFA-S swarm drones. It will feature an internal weapons bay and reach a maximum speed of Mach 0.9. The Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) will consist of the CATS Warrior loyal wingman, the CATS Hunter air-launched cruise missile, the CATS Air-Launched Flexible Asset Swarm (ALFA-S) loitering munitions, and the CATS Infinity pseudo satellite, which will act as an interface between the satellite and the loyal wingman.
- Two more components, the Optionally Manned Combat aircraft (OMCA) and the High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV were added to the CATS program recently. The names of the components are self-explanatory. The program is expected to be ready by 2025.
- The OMCA component will reuse the retired aircraft of the IAF as single-use kamikaze drones. These drones will help increase the fighter strength of the IAF, which is painfully much lower than the required fleet strength.
Transport or Cargo UAVs
- There is a vast scope for the development of transport UAVs. Recently the DRDO Young Scientist Lab (DYSL) announced the intent to develop transport drones for the Indian Army. India has vast borders, and the scope of using drones to transport supplies is enormous. The Indian Navy is in dire need of replenishment ships, and this role can be easily fulfilled via transportation UAVs. Many private players are also developing UAVs for transportation. Even HAL has announced its intent to develop the RUAV 200, and its first flight is expected any time in 2022.
- Recently Ideaforge bagged multiple orders for their SWITCH Tactical UAV. Intelligence is the backbone of war, and good intelligence can determine the outcome of any conflict. Unfortunately, the intelligence capabilities of the armed forces are seriously lacking, and this gap can be filled in via our surveillance UAVs. The HAL CATS HALE and the recently announced DRDO HALE can play an essential role in the intelligence sector. The IAF has a severe shortage of ISTAR aircraft, and these UAVs can plug in this gap. The CATS infinity pseudo satellite can also be used for major surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
- The IAF faces a severe shortage of mid-air refuellers. Recently Boeing tested their autonomous mid-air refuelling UAV. To overcome these problems and improve operational capabilities, DRDO can and may develop a mid-air refuelling drone of its own. This will be a cheap and a much more viable option. Also, the IAF will be able to acquire more mid-air refuellers at a fraction of the cost of the original systems. The Indian Navy can use these systems for carrier and land-based operations. Moreover, these cheap systems can be procured and deployed in large numbers.
Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW):
- The Indian Navy faces some severe shortcomings in its ASW capabilities. This is alarming as China has an ever-expanding fleet of submarines. China has already made its intentions in the South China Sea region clear. Moreover, it is providing some of these submarines to Pakistan, which is an ever-growing threat to our national security. Now that the deal for more P-8I Poseidon aircraft has been cancelled, it is high time we improved our ASW capabilities. In collaboration with the DRDO, the Navy can develop an ASW variant of the Ghatak UCAV, which it plans to operate from its aircraft carriers anyway. Further, it can also develop an entirely new UAV dedicated to ASW warfare. These will be cheap and can be operated in large numbers, thus increasing our ASW capabilities manifold.
Electronic Warfare (EW):
- Recently HAL announced its plan to make an EW version of the LCA Tejas. In addition, an EW version of the HAL CATS loyal wingman could be developed, which would be cheaper and could be deployed in greater numbers. These would significantly increase the EW capabilities of the IAF and will be more economical in the long term.
Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR):
- During the extraction of soldiers, these drones could be used to keep an eye out for threats and if required could conduct strikes on potential threats. This will act as an extra layer of security and will help to minimize casualties. Usually, extraction vehicles are sitting ducks whether extraction is done by air or ground, and they face many threats from the enemy. These drones could also fly with the convoy and scout from the air for potential threats along the route taken by the convoy. This way the enemy won’t be able to surprise our soldiers and the chances of an ambush are reduced drastically.
- Drones could be used to evacuate injured soldiers during operations, and this will be more effective as they can be operated in large numbers. This will help wounded soldiers get treatment faster, thus reducing the casualties during war or warlike situations. The Indian Army could develop this drone with the DRDO, which can be used for civil purposes. These UAVs can also be used during natural disasters and other situations requiring evacuation.
Micro and Nano Drones:
- NAL / ADE Black Kite, NAL / ADE Golden Hawk, NAL / ADE Pushpak. These are micro drones developed by NAL and ADE for the Indian Armed forces. These help to give real-time feed and help improve overall operational awareness. However, these drones will get a lot smaller and more efficient with advancements in technology. There is still a lot of scope for improvement in technology in these areas.
- Recently the Army placed a small order for swarm drones. These swarms can overwhelm enemy air defences and thus neutralise them. However, still much research is needed in this field, and many more systems are yet to be developed. In the future, they may be deployed from virtually any system from ships, aircraft, tanks, personnel carriers and even from huge canisters in the thousands. Only time will tell what advancements will be made in this field.
- This article would be incomplete without discussing anti-drone systems and hence let’s talk about the anti-drone systems of the future. Air defence systems worldwide are becoming ineffective as they can be easily overwhelmed by cheap drones that attack in the thousands. Hence the new generation of air defence systems will be energy or LASER based. Israel has already started working in this direction and has begun developing a LASER dome that will protect the airspace around a given area. India should also take steps in this direction as we need to stay technologically relevant to defend ourselves from our enemies.
- In conclusion, I think it is high time India invests and develops its industries in this field as these systems will be the future of next-generation warfare. Our present systems will become obsolete, and I think the government has realised this and has taken steps in the right direction. However, many more steps are required to be taken, and efficient use of the existing budget is the need of the hour. We also need to make our defence sector self-reliant as such systems are classified, and no country would share such a system with us. Even if they do, they will do it at an exorbitantly high price and drain our budget in the process. I think it is high time we use our budget to its full potential and safeguard our borders efficiently.