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Understanding AURA UCAV Programme

Hello Defence Lovers, India is working on its autonomous stealth UCAV. This program is known as AURA (Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft). It is being developed by DRDO for the Indian Air Force. The AURA UCAV is designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in collaboration with IIT Kanpur. One special thing about this program is a classified one. Thus very little information is available in the public domain. However, some information is out from some media reports and agencies like DRDO, IIT Kanpur, etc. This article is based on such information available.

In this article, we will try to understand the need and history of the AURA program. Then we shall simplify components of this program and try to clear confusion over their nomenclatures. We will discuss specifications and special features, the current status, and the expected timeline of the project.

Need Of AURA UCAV

This project started in 2009. It can be said that it was a futuristic program considering this timeline. Since then many new concepts have emerged like the wingman concept. Thus need for such a program has intensified over time.

The following reasons can be there behind going for a project like this.

  • Unmanned technologyUnmanned technologies are increasingly being inducted in aerial warfare. Fighter aircraft are being made optionally unmanned, UAVs are gaining importance. This involves less risk as human life is not directly involved in such platforms.
  • Stealth- Armed drones in service today are not stealthy. They face serious limitations in self defence. Thus they are much vulnerable to enemy air defence systems. Stealthy UCAVs remove this vulnerability to a great extent as they are very difficult to detect.
  • Network centric warfare –This is the future of air warfare. Many fighters and UAVs can make a deadly formation against enemy while communicating in a secure network. Stealthy UCAVs in such formation will act as a force multiplier.
  • Wingman concept This is a new concept where fighter aircraft will fly with wingman drones. India is working on such programme also which was revealed for first time in Aero India 2021. A component of AURA programme named SWIFT will be developed as a wingman.
  • Global quest for Stealthy UCAVs –Major military powers are working on such platform. For example, Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik, British BAE systems Taranis, American Boeing X-45, Northrop Grumman X-47B, French Dassault nEUROn, etc. India being a major military power also needs such platform and as we know indigenization is the way forward.

Also read- In Detail: Meet India’s Mighty Drone Army !!!

History Of AURA UCAV Programme

Work on this project started in 2009. At that time Government of India approved Rs. 12.5 crores to DRDO for a feasibility study of this program. DRDO completed a feasibility study in 2013. The project was kept classified and it was given the name Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft i.e. AURA. The project was finally sanctioned in 2016. Rs. 213 Cr were allocated. It was decided that the project would be realized in 2 phases.

In phase 1, a small version of UCAV would be made. It was named SWIFT (Stealth Wing Flying Testbed). Initially, it was planned to be only a technology demonstrator. But now it may be developed as a wingman drone. In phase 2, actual UCAV will be made. Its name would be GHATAK.

There is often confusion about this program that why a single program has 3 different names viz. AURA, GHATAK, and SWIFT. As we saw above AURA is the original name of the project. It is said to be dropped now. As the project is classified, it’s difficult to know about the current name, so we are calling it AURA. GHATAK will be the original UCAV and SWIFT will be a mini version of GHATAK UCAV. It will be used for technology demonstration and flight characters testing. SWIFT will be further developed as a separate project for the role of unmanned wingman drones.

Design

The design of GHATAK and SWIFT will be a Flying wing design. Such a design is tailless. It doesn’t have a distinguishable fuselage. This type of design has a very low Radar Cross Section (RCS) thus making it a stealthy aircraft. Such aircraft are not much maneuverable. Thus they are more suited for bombing roles.

Specifications And Performance Parameters Of AURA UCAV

SWIFT

  • Weight- 1 ton, precisely 1050 kg.
  • Length- 4 m
  • Wingspan- 5 m
  • Engine- Initially Russian NPO Saturn 36MT, later indigenous Manik/ GTRE turbofan engine.
  • Range- 200 km
  • Max. altitude- 6 km
  • Flight endurance- 1 hr

GHATAK UCAV

  • Weight- 15 tonnes (maximum take-off weight, i.e. including fuel and weapons payload)
  • Engine- Dry variant of Kaveri turbofan engine which will produce thrust of 45 kN.

Other details like length, wingspan, etc are not available for GHATAK.

Special Features Of AURA UCAV

Stealth- DRDO has said that 70% of stealth will come from the design i.e. shape of the UCAV. The remaining 30% stealth will be achieved by material, radar-absorbent paint, RF reduction techniques.

Internal weapons bay– It will also have an internal weapons bay like a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Ghatak is said to be able to carry a minimum of 2 laser-guided bombs in its internal weapons bay.

In fact, many of the features of this project are common with the AMCA program and they are being developed commonly by DRDO and ADA.

Current Status And Expected Timeline

SWIFT model at Aero India 2021 AURA UCAV
SWIFT model at Aero India 2021

In 2018, Rs. 3000 Cr were cleared by the Government of India for the AURA program.

SWIFT

In 2020, a small prototype of SWIFT was flight tested at Hosur near Bengaluru in collaboration with IISc. All flight controls were tested.

Work on first prototype started early this year. Wind tunnel testing on this first prototype is being done at IIT Kanpur. In June this year, low-speed taxi trials were started. As per some reports, low-speed taxi trials and high-speed taxi trials were completed last month. We can expect the first flight of SWIFT before the end of this year. It will take 1-1.5 years more for all the trials.

Ghatak

The 1:1 model of GHATAK UCAV is made by a Hyderabad-based private company. Currently, DRDO’s Hyderabad-based RCS testing facility is doing RCS testing on it. If everything goes well, we can expect the first flight of GHATAK UCAV in 2024-25.

Conclusion

AURA program will be a force multiplier for the Indian Air Force. SWIFT UCAV will significantly boost the combat air teaming systems i.e. CATS program. GHATAK UCAV will largely fulfill the gap of bomber aircraft in IAF. Also, it is going to be a next-generation platform due to its advanced features. GHATAK will be able to conduct Balakot like strikes without involving risks of pilot’s life and without being detected by the enemy thus adding great deterrent value to the IAF’s arsenal.

Prasad Gore

A defence enthusiast. Writing on Defence, Aviation and International Relations. M.A., NET (Defence and strategic studies).

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