With an eye on both the western and eastern fronts with Pakistan and China, the Indian armed forces are steadily building a formidable arsenal of spy, target acquisition and “killer” drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).
Even as the navy sets up spy drone bases along the coastline and IAF inducts “killer” drones, the army has inked yet another contract to acquire two more “troops” (eight drones each) of Israeli `Heron’ medium-altitude, long endurance UAVs.
“Under the Rs 1,200 crore contract with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the army will begin inducting these new Heron drones from January 2014,” Times of India said, quoting a senior defence official.
The drones, to be inducted into the new SATA (surveillance and target acquisition) regiments are being raised from a part of the overall modernisation plan for the 1.13-million force being pushed by Army chief General Bikram Singh.
An officer said that the force wants speedy induction of various UAVs, from man-portable micro and mini spy ones to `killer’ ones that act like missiles to hit targets. The officer maintained that it would bolster capabilities for surveillance, weapon delivery and direction of artillery fire.
In keeping with the plan to progressively induct drones right down to the battalion-level by the end of this decade, the army is already establishing new UAV bases from Nagrota and Manasbal in Jammu and Kashmir to Kumbhigram and Lilabari in the north-east.
The navy, in turn, is looking to raise new UAV squadrons after establishing three at Kochi (Kerala), Porbandar (Gujarat) and Uchipuli (Tamil Nadu) to detect threats emanating from the sea.
Similarly, IAF is inducting additional Harop “killer” drones equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over high-value military targets before exploding into them. The force has also experimented with “add-ons or attachments” to its existing fleet of Israeli Heron and Searcher-II surveillance drones to add a killer role to them.
The armed forces eventually want full-fledged UCAVs (combat UAVs) – akin to the American Predators and Reapers being used in the Afghan-Pak region – which return to their bases like fighter jets to replenish their missiles for fresh missions.
They have inducted over 100 UAVs, mainly from Israel, as “major force-multipliers” since the 1999 Kargil conflict. DRDO, too, has got into the act by stepping up its drone programmes, from the already inducted Nishant to the under-development Rustom-I and II drones.
DRDO has also launched the secretive AURA (autonomous unmanned research aircraft) programme to develop stealth UCAVs capable of firing missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions.
Similarly, another ambitious project on the drawing board focuses on designing solar-powered high-altitude, long endurance UAVs that can cruise in the sky for several days at a time for round-the-clock ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) missions.