Eye in the sky for Indian Navy-Sea Guardians

November 30, 2020 3:18 PM

As the world is entering into a war strategic era where machines are becoming the first line of defence followed by human intervention, which was the other way round earlier, the role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has become more protuberant.

The Sea Guardian UAS manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of the US is the naval variant of the Predator B drone which is now known more appropriately by the name MQ-9 Reaper.

By Raaj Nair, 

As the world is entering into a war strategic era where machines are becoming the first line of defence followed by human intervention, which was the other way round earlier, the role of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has become more protuberant. Giving a major fillip to Indo-US defence cooperation, India has begun the process to procure remotely piloted MQ9 Predator ‘B’ Sea Guardian from the United States. The Indian Navy has taken on lease two Sea Guardian drones from an American defence major (General Atomics) to enhance surveillance over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). India and the US signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in Sept last year. The drone deal that was put on hold for 2 years has fructified after the signing of the COMCASA thus recognising India as a Major Defence Partner. Last month, India and the US signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that allows the US to share sensitive geospatial data with India that could be used in increasing the performance of both weapon and surveillance systems.

The Sea Guardian UAS manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems of the US is the naval variant of the Predator B drone which is now known more appropriately by the name MQ-9 Reaper. This is a long-endurance, high-altitude platform that can be employed in an armed patrol role. It was the first hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was employed operationally by the US Air Force for the first time as early as in March 2007.

This unmanned platform has also been in service with the armed forces of Australia, Britain, Netherlands and Italy. In comparison with its predecessor, the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper is larger and more powerful as it is equipped by a 900 horsepower Honeywell TPE 331-10 turboprop engine, as against the 119horsepower engine on the MQ-1 Predator. Also, the MQ-9 Reaper is capable of flying at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet and can cruise at nearly three times the speed of the MQ-1 Predator. These birds have an endurance of over 27 hours, a speed of 240 knots true airspeed and has a 3,850 pound (1,746 kg) payload capacity that includes 3,000 pounds (1,361 kg) of external stores.

These drones will have significant capabilities for the Indian Navy increasing its domain awareness and ability to maintain a vigil over the areas that stretch from the Gulf in the west to the crucial Malacca strait in East and vast waters of the southern Indian Ocean in a cost-effective way as operating these drones are far cheaper than the surveillance sortie of Boeing’s P8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft.

The Army, Navy and Air Force had collectively come to the conclusion that India should opt for a weaponised drone rather than the 22 x reconnaissance and surveillance Sea Guardian drones approved in 2017 by the US administration for supply to India. India had first expressed its interest in these General Atomics armed drones in 2015 and the procurement had been in the works since then. First, it was being processed as the purchase of 22 Sea Guardians for the Indian Navy till 2017 and was later converted into an acquisition for all three services.

In a significant step to reduce the high upfront cost of acquiring latest weapon platforms, Indian Navy this month inducted two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones manufactured by the US defence major General Atomics on lease. American crew from General Atomics is also accompanying the equipment and would support the Indian Navy in operating the machines. The intelligence data from the two drones is being fed into the Indian Navy’s warfare network and the country will have exclusive control over the data gathered by the two drones. Under the lease agreement, the drone manufacturer’s crew will only help in the maintenance and technical issues while the mission planning and operational control will rest with Indian Navy. The data gathered by the drones during the flight would also be the exclusive property of the Navy The sale to India of the armed Predators was controversial when it was first mooted — with India asking for 22 Sea Guardian maritime variants for its Navy

— way back in 2016. UAVs that can carry missiles fall under the Missile Technology Control Regime’s (MTCR) Category 1 classification, for which there is a presumption of denial of exports. In order to facilitate the export (as well as other sales of sensitive US defence equipment), the Obama Administration designated India as a Major Defence Partner — a totally new category for US-foreign relationships specific to India. The goal was to create a tighter defence partnership between India and the US to counter Chinese ambitions and to undercut Russia’s long hold on arms sales to Delhi.

To increase its surveillance capabilities, India in the last two decades has purchased Searcher Mk I and II as also the Heron from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The Indian Navy has been operating UAVs since 2006. In 2015, Israel agreed to sell ten Heron TP armed drones for $400 million to India. ProjectCheetah with Israel was commissioned to upgrade the in-service drones to carry out offensive operations against the enemy. Under this project, 90 Heron drones of the three services would be upgraded to be armed with laser-guided bombs, air to ground and air-launched anti-tank guided missiles.

Presently, two Heron UAVs need to be flown in tandem with a time gap because they are not fitted with a satellite package. Without this package, information has to be relayed back to base through the second drone in case of long-range surveillance. Obviously, when we acquired the Heron UAVs from Israel, the thinking was primarily for deployment against counter-terrorists and counter-infiltration operations. The type of long-range surveillance requirements that have come up with the Chinese aggression was not visualised because the requirements for offensive operations were not the focus. The upgrade sought from Israel now involves fitting the Heron drone with a satellite package so that the UAV links with the satellite above and information is sent on a real-time basis. The upgrade will allow the Heron to conduct long-range surveillance without the fear of losing contact with the base or go into no contact zone. With this upgrade in reconnaissance capabilities, the forces on the ground would also be able to get pin-point intelligence about hideouts in areas where men have to be involved in operations and enable the Armed forces' ground station handlers to operate these aircraft from far-off distances and control them through the satellite communication system. This would boost the capability to monitor enemy movement, keeping an eye on enemy locations and stations for taking action against them as and when required. The project is yet to be completed.

India has, so far, been using drones primarily for ISR purposes. It began early by importing Searcher 1 and 2 drones from Israel in the late 1990s for the three Services. These were followed by the Heron — a sophisticated long-range, long-endurance and high-altitude unarmed drone. Ninety Herons are currently in service with the Indian armed forces. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has also imported a limited number of Harop suicide drones from Israel, primarily for suppression of enemy air-defence systems.

China has the formidable capability of all type of drones and has also been practising the use of swarm drones in recent years while India is lagging far behind in this regard. China is exporting drones to Pakistan and is helping Pakistan develop indigenous drones like the ‘Burraq’ unarmed combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) developed by the National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) in conjunction with the Pakistani air force. During China’s National Day parade in Oct 2019, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) displayed a number of UAVs — DR-8 supersonic spy drone, the GJ-11 stealth combat drone and the GJ-2 reconnaissance and strike drone. The PLA has also deployed another drone named CH-4, which underwent tests in the Tibetan plateau region in 2018 and the BZK-005C, specifically modified for use in high altitudes. Since 2017, China has exported CH-4 and CH-5 fixed-wing reconnaissance and strike drones, selling them to more than 10 countries, shipping more than 200 units every year.

Rustom is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) RPA being developed by DRDO for the three services. First flights of Rustom-1& Rustom 2 took off on 11 Nov 2009 &15 Nov 2016 respectively. Despite years of development, the present status:- Rustom-1 MALE UAV (Prototype flight testing), Rustom-H HALE UAV (Under development) and Rustom-2 UCAV (Prototype flight testing). Rustom-2 has been renamed to TAPAS-BH-201 (Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201). The American RQ-1 Predator is an obvious template for the Rustom program. Rustom-2 is capable of carrying a different combination of payloads (350kg) including synthetic aperture radar, electronic intelligence systems and situational awareness systems. DRDO is in the process of enhancing the endurance to over 24hrs.

MQ9 Predator ‘B’ Sea Guardian which are less manoeuvrable and carry a lesser payload, are very vulnerable to air defences, a capability both of India’s rival neighbours (China and Pakistan) excel at. The engagements over Afghanistan and the success rate could be attributed to the lack of air defence capability of the Taliban, while in other parts of the middle east, these drones have been shot down by even the oldest of soviet-era missile systems. The recent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan might have shown how effective these drones could be against enemy armour, meanwhile, it also shows the high number of drone losses for both sides. The high costs and the susceptibility of these systems would also have raised eyebrows for the Indian services. The costs incurred would have been Rs 900 crore per unit along with a 10% additional annual maintenance cost. Along with this, the deal would have given no transfer of technology or offsets, an issue raised during several internal meetings.

The costs saved from signing the Sea Guardian deal could be used more efficiently by investing in long-sought indigenous procurement of LCA Tejas Mk-1As and Light Combat Helicopters and supporting the internal industries under the helm of Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

(The author is Indian Navy Veteran. Views are personal)

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