UAVs in the Indian Armed Forces - The India Saga



UAVs in the Indian Armed Forces

Shock discovery of Pakistani intruders occupying the strategic heights of Kargil and its aftermath was as forceful a reminder as…

UAVs in the Indian Armed Forces

Shock discovery of Pakistani intruders occupying the strategic heights of Kargil and its aftermath was as forceful a reminder as any of the necessity of keeping a constant vigil on the countryÂs borders. It was also clear that the then available means of surveillance (mainly army patrols and occasional aerial reconnaissance) were grossly inadequate for the onerous task. Consequently ideas of employing unmanned platforms to keep an eye on the long land borders and shores which had been brewing for sometime took on fresh urgency.

Even while guns were still blazing in Kargil, plans began to be laid to integrate UAVs in border surveillance plans. In the two decades that have followed, Indian armed forces have acquired more than 200 UAVs mostly of Israeli origin. DRDO which had been dabbling with UAV design for some time also got in the act and working in collaboration with Indian industry has made some progress in creating indigenous capacity. Perceived necessity of close surveillance was the original purpose of UAVs. However, sensing enhanced possibilities with maturing of relevant technologies at home, Indian armed forces have widened their horizons to include them for kinetic action against suitable targets. Therefore, it is quite possible that a future surgical strike across the LOC may well be a precision missile attack executed by employing UAVs.

Current Status

Besides a small number of IAFÂs HAROP Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) designed to neutralise radiating targets, currently Indian armed forces have some 200+ Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Searcher and Heron UAVs of Israeli origin. Searcher, the smaller of the two is limited both in pay load capacity (150 lbs) as well as operational ceiling of (20,000ft.). However, with its abilities to stay aloft for up to 18 hours and carry a variety of sensors, it has rendered yeomanÂs service along the Western borders and Indian shores. Heron, the larger of the two MALE UAVs is more versatile. With a take- off weight of 1,150 Kg, it can carry a 250 Kg. payload of sensors, stay aloft up to 52 hours (depending on the chosen flight profile) and with operating ceiling of 32,000 ft, it has proven to be an extremely useful surveillance tool along the mountainous Northern borders.

On the acquisition horizon there are a number of other systems which when inducted would give a quantum leap in capability. From Israel, IndiaÂs dependable supplier of choice there is Heron TP, an upgraded version of Heron. Israel was inhibited in sale of this system because of its voluntary moratorium on selling dual use strategic assets to parties not signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Following IndiaÂs entry into MTCR in 2016, agreement has been reached for purchase of 10 Heron TPs.

India has also been keen to acquire both armed as well as unarmed Predators from the United States. Indian NavyÂs request for 22 Guardian UAVs (maritime variant of Predator MQ-9) has already been approved by the US Govt. IAFÂs request for 100 Predator C Avenger drones appears to be in the process. Sale of armed UAVs has been a matter of discussion between the US and India. It is believed that it would have been one of the deliverables from the recently postponed July two + two dialogue.

Indigenous Effort

While Indian security needs have necessitated import of a large number of UAVs, DRDO has also been gearing up to meet the huge future demand. It was an early entrant in the field of design and development of unmanned systems and off and on there were glimpses of promise too. However the record thus far has been patchy. It designed ÂNishant  a 340 Kg catapult launched, compact mobile system for day and night battlefield surveillance, reconnaissance, target designation, artillery fire direction and damage assessment. After decades of development and trials, It was delivered to the Indian Army in 2013. By 2015 all four Nishants thus far supplied had crashed and reports suggest that no fresh inductions are planned. Notwithstanding the setbacks, DRDO in collaboration with Indian industry now appears to be coming of age in this highly sophisticated and competitive field. Poster child of its labours is the ongoing design and development of Rustom series of UAVs which merit more than just passing mention and also some praise.Rustom 1, Rustom H and Rustom 2 comprise the Rustom family. They are MALE UAVs which would complement the Heron inventory of the Indian armed forces. Rustom 1 resembles Burt Rutan light aircraft design. It features a rear mounted main wing appendages and a canard wing assembly at front. The power plant (Lycoming o-320) developing 150 hp is contained in the aft section of the fuselage and drives a two bladed propeller. Empty frame weighs 1,560 lbs and it can carry a payload up to 165 lbs. With a ceiling of 26,000ft, it could stay aloft for up to 12 hoursRustom H  the High altitude version. Although said to be belonging to the Rustom family, it bears little resemblance with Rustom 1. It is much larger at 4,000 lbs empty weight and its pay load capacity at 770 lbs is also much greater. In appearance it has mid-set straight wings, a bulbous nose section and a retractable undercarriage. The tail unit is T shaped with a high mounted horizontal tail plane. Two NPO Saturn 36 MT turboprops developing 100 hp each drive 3 bladed propellers. Its range is estimated to be 625 miles and operating altitude 35,000 ft. Endurance could be of the order of 24 hours.

Rustom 2 (Redesignated Tapas 201). Similar in appearance to Rustom H this fully featured combat capable UAV often draws comparison with American Predator. Its payloads include state of the art ELINT and COMINT suites, Synthetic Aperture Radar and other medium and long range electro optical sensors to capture imagery. It underwent successful testing in user configuration on February 25, 2018. DRDO plans to produce 10 TAPAS 201 prototypes in order to fast track development work on all variants as requested by the three services.


In December 2011 Iranian military way laid an American RQ Â 170 Sentinel drone and made it to land near the city of Kashmar in Northeastern Iran. Earlier in 2008 militants in Iraq using cheap off the shelf software had succeeded in tapping into the feed of American UAVs transmitting sensitive data to control centers. By the very nature of their functioning UAVs constantly receive and stream large amounts of data. These windows of information exchange create opportunities for interference. Although robust system design takes into account steps to insulate operating integrity of the vehicle and its systems from external threats, risk assessment and countermeasures must remain an ongoing process if loss or compromise of sensitive information is to be forestalled.


Indian army plans to induct 5,000 UAVs over the next 10 years. Even if the stated numbers appear somewhat optimistic yet they suggest the depth to which Indian armed forces are planning to integrate UAVs in every aspect of their operational philosophy. UAVs roles have thus far been limited to C4ISTAR functions. Future inductions would undoubtedly enable plugging of the remaining loopholes and bolster these capabilities even further. In addition, armed UAVs would also almost certainly become a significant component of Indian militaryÂs offensive capabilities. Work is already underway to integrate HELINA anti-tank missile with Rustom H. Once operational it could also be used for strikes of the scope and genre as Indian armyÂs surgical strike across the LOC in September 2016. Essential elements to enable kinetic UAV strikes at longer ranges are also being steadily put in place.

GAGAN Indian satellite based augmentation system (SBAS) necessary for enhancement of SATNAV signals for accurate navigation is already operational. Additional satellites exclusively for military communication would furnish the additional bandwidth required for operation at extended ranges. Rustom 2 with its heavier frame, greater payload capacity and endurance of up to 30 hours is likely to be the indigenous platform of choice for an Indian armed UAV fleet. In the more distant future AURA, a stealthy UCAV being developed by DRDO would add another club in the bag. Not quite visible yet but UAVs are clearly set to become a major component in the combat capability of the Indian armed forces.

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