The Israeli SkyLite-A has already been demonstrated to the Special Forces in 2005 and to a Kumaon unit outside Chaubatia in mid-2006, according to sources in the Army’s W&E Directorate, though results were not conclusive. Another demonstration is planned for sometime in the next few months, but this time for an Indian team visiting Israel. The source also revealed that the systems that will most likely be looked at for the Army’s requirements (and whose manufacturers have already apparently been contacted for more information) are the SkyLite-B and BirdEye from Israel, a separate proposed joint HAL-Israeli system if possible, the American Lockheed-Martin Desert Hawk, and a yet unnamed system being developed jointly by Raytheon and Northrop-Grumman. DefenseNews quotes a HAL official as saying that the HAL-Elbit joint venture (Halbit) for SkyLark UAV avionics and simulators will help the former build its own mini-UAV, though whether this will be a specifically man-portable system is not yet known. The Army has also invited Hyderabad-based private firm Speck Systems for field demonstrations of its self-developed family of mini-UAVs that are said to be designed for use in the field by operators, fully portable and with excellent payload configurations. Whether DRDO is planning a portable UAV from the Pawan/Gagan projects or as an entirely separate UAV is also not confirmed, though it is known that Israel and the EU are pitching to assist DRDO as principle advisor on mission payloads and sensors on the three-UAV programme. Though it will be entirely upto DRDO to decide where and for what it may employ foreign consultancy services. Word is, however, that it is highly likely that DRDO will enlist Israel as a technical partner or advisor (or both). Notwithstanding flak for the Nishant, the Rustom/Pawan/Gagan UAVs promise to be excellent products in their own right. In the meantime, Israel has consistently brought all its wares to successive DefExpos and AeroIndias, showcasing the I-View, I-See, Mosquito and BirdEye as well.
The indigenous UAV development programme is a fascinating story. The Lakshya has emerged as a first-rate target drone. The Nishant has so far only been ordered by the Army, and is under limited series production. The IAF, on the other hand, is not yet fully convinced, even though it had made assurances of drawing up orders once the Army had completed trials and placed firm orders for the indigenous UAV. Not long ago, at a Western Air Command press conference, then SASO (now AOC-in-C, Central Air Command, and in line to be the next Chief of Air Staff) Air Marshal Pradeep Naik didn’t have any good things to say about Nishant: He indicated that trials of the Nishant by the IAF had not proved satisfactory. Notwithstanding the obvious advantages of a mobile launcher-propelled machine, Naik said that the Nishant’s endurance and turnaround time were “pathetic”. Recovered by a parachute, the system was invariably damaged struturally and rendered unusable for a long period. Its low endurance, therefore, was amplified by its unsafe recovery mechanism, he said.
But this may be just a WAC view, since previously the Central Air Command (which Naik now heads) witnessed the Nishant and gave it a vote of confidence. The IAF has, anyway, used an overall critique of the Nishant (low endurance, unsafe recovery, inadequate payload capacity) to pitch for many more UAVs from Israel. That aside, by the middle of this year, the Army will receive 16 new Heron UAVs (from a deal signed in January 2006), eight each for the Nagrota and Srinagar Corps to supplement the Searcher Mk-IIs deployed with 10 Corps in Bhatinda. The Navy, which operates both Searchers and Herons from 342 Sqn in Kochi has asked HAL to develop a rotor-wing tactical UAV (for situational awareness and precision targeting) that can be launched and recovered off its frigates and destroyers, with specifications similar to the MQ-8B Fire Scout built by Northrop-Grumman. Meanwhile, Boeing/Insitu had pitched the ScanEagle as a possible ship-launched platform for the Indian Navy, though the latter was not interested in an arrested-loop recovery that seemed a tad unwieldy and not worth the cost. The Coast Guard also needs UAVs and has expressed deep interest in the Nishant, though it has obviously asked for sensors and cameras conducive to coastal and in-shore reconnaisance.
It’s probably time for a holistic and well-considered Integrated UAV Development and Induction plan. The IAF will add a chapter on UAVs to its doctrine on the next doctrinal cycle along with urban warfare. The Navy is doing the same. UAVs will play an inestimably large role in operational reconnaisance and surveillance in a country this large — that’s the reason foreign contractors are throwing everything they’ve got at the armed forces, including invitations to participate in next-generation developments in the EU and US. It’s definitely time for DRDO, HAL, the armed forces and a select consortium from the private sector to sit down and hammer out a clear-cut development and production plan. If there are gaps, fill those in with help from abroad. But if things go in a coordinated way from the word go (without the criminally wasteful schisms among the armed forces), the requirement of foreign consultancies and technology could be entirely precluded, even rendered redundant. The armed forces can and should use UAVs in large numbers. As maritime surveillance platforms, they’ll save huge costs for the Navy. There’s no need to even talk about the advantages of using UAVs in sensitive land sectors, currently a job done by just a few flights. There’s much to keep a tab on, so here’s to prudence, for once.