Even as India is pushing for indigenous military grade drones for the armed forces, the deal for 30 Predator (MQ-9) series Unarmed Aerial Vehicles with the US is expected to be finalised soon.
The deal according to sources is pegged at roughly below $3 billion including spares, weapons and ground control stations.
Confirming to Financial express Online, a senior navy officer said, “In view of India’s increasing role in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, the Indian Navy has been pushing for High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones. The drones with the US are on track and soon it will be done.”
Atmanirbhar Bharat in Drones: MRO & Transfer of Technology
“The negotiations are in advanced stage and since this is a government to government deal through FMS route, part of India’s journey towards Atmanirbhar Bharat in Defence, the US has offered Transfer of Technology (ToT) to help enable India design and build armed HALE unmanned aircraft which usually is at least a ten-year effort based on global experience,” sources have confirmed to Financial Express Online.
Will this help the indigenous process?
If the US is willing to ToT it will help in pushing the building of HALE drones for the Indian Armed Forces.
Even before the deal could be finalised two pre-production models of MQ-9 drones have been leased from the US-based General Atomics. Following the clashes between the Indian and Chinese forces in 2020, these were deployed for land and maritime operations. And they operated alongside the P-8, a multi-mission maritime patrol aircraft from the Boeing Company, to keep an eye on the growing presence of the Chinese boats in the region.
The Predator (MQ-9) series as reported earlier have an endurance capability of flying for over 30 hours and have proved to be a big asset for the Indian Navy. And the two leased are flying under Indian colours. Recently, an MQ-9 drone was used to fire Hellfire RX9 missile to kill Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Dr Vivek Lall, Chief Executive of General Atomics Global Corporation had met with Financial Express Online in May this year and had talked about the discussions between the two governments related to the deal for 30 drones.
The Indian Navy is the lead service for the MQ-9 Predators from the US and the discussions between the two sides have been on track. According to sources, the drones which have been leased from the US have been performing very well and have enhanced the Indian Navy’s surveillance capability to keep an eye on the Indian Ocean Region.
What is the difference between HALE and MALE Drones?
Here is a comprehensive details on the difference between the difference between these two types of drones-
High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE)
This refers to a family of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that operate in the ascribed conditions.
The US based Boeing Company is trying various unarmed concepts, and another company Northrop Grumman has a HALE `GlobalHawk’ which is in the unarmed category. In fact General Atomic is the only company globally to have HALE Drones which is why India is set to buy through FMS.
The HALE class of drones themselves form a part of pseudo satellites. These pseudo satellites are deployed near the tropopause however carry the apparent advantage of quicker deployment and lesser cost.
According to an expert who wished to remain anonymous, “To drive home the relevance of HALE drones, consider the Kargil War of 1999 – how the Indian side suffered due to the denial of GPS services is known. Even satellite imagery was reportedly purchased at a premium. If there were HALE drones that could have been readily deployed, a lot of this would not have been an issue. Of course, we have NavIC and the Indian Space and Research Organisation today but HALE can readily bring what a satellite might to a battlefield.”
Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE)
This flies between 10,000 ft and 30,000 ft and lasts for about a day or two in flight. This is the class of drones that a layman recognises. From IAI Heron to Baykar Bayraktar TB2, all these belong to this class of drones. These drones, although only recently becoming ubiquitous in militaries worldwide, have been performing various tasks. These offer combat capabilities as well as surveillance and reconnaissance support.
Indigenisation & DRDO
In India’s indigenous journey for both HALE and MALE drones, armed variants seem to be on the back burner. However, India will need one proof-of-concept along with flight hours to be confident in entrusting its arsenal to drones. So, while Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS BH-201), might not carry any warheads yet, one can be sure that later arrivals on the scene will be ready to engage in combat.
HALE drones are already in the pipeline. The ambitious Combat Air Teaming Systems (CATS) envisions a pseudo satellite named CATS Infinity. Further, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has released that it will encourage the private sector to develop the HALE class of UAS under a Special Purpose Vehicle. Separately, through Innovation in Defence Expo (iDEX), it aims for an indigenous low-orbit pseudo satellite.
However, tryst with the MALE class is different. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has been working on Rustom for a while. Meanwhile, Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) has been working tirelessly to bring many options to the MALE class. It is working with DRDO on CATS while also seeking an opportunity with Israeli maker, IAI, to produce its Heron TP here in India. Even the private sector has been bullish.
Adani Group has a joint venture with Israeli Elbit Systems to manufacture their Hermes UAS. However, the first MALE drone that will be made in India for commission into the three services is slated to be the Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS BH-201).
HAL is already working on six airframes for the evaluation of the system. While TAPAS is still under development, DRDO remains confident.