Evolution of UAV Squadrons of Indian Navy to a Combat Ready Force in the Indo-Pacific

March 20, 2021 3:59 PM

Indian Navy recognized the potential of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at the beginning of the 21st century when two variants of fixed wing UAVs, Searcher and Heron were inducted from Israel in 2002. The primary role of these UAVs was unmanned ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) maritime missions in a multi-mission/multi-payload configuration.

The UCAVs shall play an important role to shape the next skirmish with any hostile nation which India may face either on land, air or at sea. Image: General Atomics

By Milind Kulshreshtha

To search and track a hostile target over water, in the air or undersea is the very foundation of any maritime warfare. Indian Navy recognized the potential of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at the beginning of the 21st century when two variants of fixed wing UAVs, Searcher and Heron were inducted from Israel in 2002. The primary role of these UAVs was unmanned ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) maritime missions in a multi-mission/multi-payload configuration. The UAVs were capable of carrying various payloads onboard, like electro-optics (Day/Night operations), marine radars, ELINT (Electronics Intelligence) systems etc. The UAVs used onboard SATCOM (Satellite Communication) for Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) ranges and were capable of providing OTHT (Over- The-Horizon Target) data. The Heron MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) was capable of more than 24 hours of flight time and could reach altitudes up to 45,000 feet.

UAVs Control by Warship

At any given time, Indian Navy designates a sea going trial platform for testing of indigenous systems like sonars, torpedo tubes etc. in the actual environment. One such indigenous Leander class warship was also fitted with UAV Advance Ship Control System in a Port and Starboard configuration, with a communication data-link to UAVs and an interface with the ship’s external V/UHF communication equipment. The key factors like an uninterrupted UAV control data-link with the ship, despite the ship’s continuous roll and pitch, was specifically designed. In this scheme, it was planned that once launched from the shore Naval Air Station, the control of the UAV shall be passed over to the warship at sea for the ship’s ISR mission and UAV control passed back to the shore unit for further recovery on land after completing the mission. However, the need for such a specialized arrangement has been overcome mostly by the advancements in the digital communication systems, which provide a much higher bandwidth for shipborne operations, even without direct control of the UAV by the ship.

Presently, Indian Navy is exploring the induction of Naval Shipborne Aerial System (NSUS). The deck launched tactical UAVs (fixed wing or rotary wing) would be always a desirable feature for the naval warships to achieve local ISR ability and for a closer air cover against enemy attack. Once organised over the sea, the NSUS UAVs can provide the air cover to the fleet’s warships and actively participate in the Combat Air Patrol duties.

Beginning of Combat Drones Era for Indian Navy

After two decades of successful exploitation of the surveillance UAVs, Indian Navy is at the juncture of upgrading its Squadrons to the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). It is the much required way ahead in the rapidly evolving geopolitical situation in the region. The UCAVs have the ability to search out targets on the high seas and destroy the selected hostile targets. The UCAVs can also stealthily penetrate the enemy air space with an explosive payload (like missiles, guided bombs etc.).

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The UAVs presently in operations with the Navy have navigation/control features combined with specialised sensors, mainly aimed at achieving precise surveillance over the enemy territories. However, UCAVs go a step further than only surveillance, and bring in a new dimension with their weaponised capability to engage Air to Surface (land/water) and even Air to Air targets. UCAVs with their onboard missiles and laser guided bombs. UCAVs like SeaGuardian have multi-mission configurations capabilities for maritime ISR, Anti-submarine Warfare, Surface Warfare and SAR (Search and Rescue) operations. The Anti-submarine operations are carried out through two to four sonobuoys which can be launched from air. Once in the sea water, these sonobuoys start to function in active/passive mode and all the underwater noise picked up is transmitted back to the UCAVs onboard receiver for processing and extracting the intelligence (like submarine signature). It is reported that the OEM is considering equipping the drone for anti-mine capabilities in the future upgrade and this shall make the navigation of ships in waters infested with surface mines safer.

Today, even though the military UAVs are not specifically expected to comply with civil airworthiness regulations as detailed by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization),however, the Sea Guardian UAVs comply to a comparable minimum level of airworthiness for fixed-wing aircrafts for flight in nonsegregated airspace with minimal or no restrictions. Such large UAVs are fitted with an automatic Obstacle Collision Avoidance system and SeaGuardian further comply with the STANAG-4671 (NATO’s airworthiness standard for Unmanned Aerial Systems). The UAVs also have been considered safe for civil operations (Disaster Management activities) with their onboard collision avoidance radar and control systems.For India, this shall make the UCAVs safe to operate over land and in the congested commercial air routes closer to the shore (like for Mumbai harbour defence etc.).

UCAV Interoperability

The legacy UAVs were developed more as payload carrying aerial machines with Ground Control Stations controlling the UAVs through V/UHF or Satellite links. Each type of UAVs used their own proprietary encrypted telemetry and communication (including video) links. Thus, UAVs from different sources of supply are not interoperable (for features like use of one single Ground Controller to control varied UAVs in airetc.). However, SeaGuardian UAVs have been developed to comply with the STANAG 4586 NATO Standard Agreement for interoperability. STANAG 4586 defines the Interface Protocol, data elements and message format for inter-system communication. India shall do well in future by requesting this feature in the negotiations. UCAVs being procured from General Atomics could be a good start point for India to start such an initiative for better jointness with NATO standard equipment being procured from US or even French Rafale Fighter jets. It is a matter of time when IAF shall be exploiting the UCAVs as part of the fighter jet support units in the strike formations and the interoperability can become the missing link for this ability. This too shall ensure that existing UCAVs always remain upward-compatible with the next generation UCAVs. Further, as is experienced during the UAV flying, multiple Ground Stations operating close by can cause Electro-magnetic Interference and Compatibility (EMI/EMC) issues and can be a cause of safety concern. The UCAVs may still have to be tested in India for its future operations in a war zone or a contested airspace (due to jamming equipment operating).

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The SeaGuardian’s designed capability to communicate with manned aircrafts is a feature India can further explore for future joint operations with Naval Maritime Patrol aircrafts and IAF fighter jets. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the flying drone units and its Ground Control Station (GCS) shall be critical for the Target Identification/Designation, Target Tracking and efficient autonomous Attack manoeuvres to engage the target(s). It is also expected that the operations of UCAVs by India shall spur the development of a robust anti-drone technology by the Industry.

Conclusion

For the Indian Navy, High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UCAVs operating from Andaman and Nicobar Naval base to keep an eye on the Western Pacific with a battle-hardened SeaGuardian UAVs shall be one of the pivotal equipment for India’s preparedness. The UCAVs shall play an important role to shape the next skirmish with any hostile nation which India may face either on land, air or at sea. A ‘Ladakh’ surprise at sea is something India cannot afford and needs to be ever vigilant in the Indo-Pacific.With the induction of UCAVs like SeaGaurdians, Indian Navy’s UAV Squadrons have a critical role to play in the peace time itself to keep the India’s interest and security safe on high seas, before any threat reaches closer to the Indian shores.

(The author is a Strategic Analyst and C4I expert. Email: milind@aikairos.com Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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