India’s first unmanned air system intended for an optional strike role is all set to make its long anticipated first flight. The indigenous medium altitude long endurance (MALE) multirole drone Rustom-II is finally ready to lift off likely by the end of this month at the Chitradurga airfield about 200 km outside Bengaluru, India’s aerospace development hub. The team developing the Rustom-2 has faced weight reduction and systems issues that have delayed a debut flight by over two years. Livefist has learnt that the team has achieved all levels of confidence necessary to put the Rustom-II into the air and get a rigorous phase of flight trials going.
In September 2013, the Rustom-II began full power taxi trials at the Kolar airfield near Bengaluru. Powered by twin NPO-Saturn 36MT turboprop engines, the Rustom-II is being developed as a long endurance surveillance platform capable of deploying precision weapons. As Livefist revealed in 2011, the DRDO is also developing an extended range version of the HELINA air-launched anti-armour system as a possible primary weapon for the Rustom-II.
U.S. firm Honeywell has consulted with the team at the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) over the last two years, fine-tuning the Rustom-II and helping design the critical flying trials phase. The Rustom-II in its final configuration will sport a combination of sensors, both indigenous and sourced from abroad, including electro-optical payloads, targeting payloads and kits for communications intelligence.
A senior officer with the Rustom-II team said, “Stability issues have been ironed out on the ground. It’s all systems go for flight. We’re looking forward to what Rustom-II can do. It is the biggest unmanned system India has ever attempted.”
The team working on the Mk.1 version of the Rustom-II has already begun work on signature management of the platform, and will be looking to significantly shave away signature for a potential Mk.2 version of the aircraft in the future. Improvements to the drone will include greater endurance and service ceiling, in addition to the ability to deploy a wider variety of weapons. The Indian Army, IAF, Navy and Coast Guard have all expressed strong interest in the Rustom-II, though firm orders will clearly only land during advanced flight testing.
The Rustom-II is being developed with an indigenous data link that will be extended operationally across platforms by the DRDO when it achieves a level of maturity. The Rustom-II at stated operational envelope will without a doubt fill a major and pressing void in Indian defence — that of long endurance surveillance. India’s IAI Heron drones with the armed forces are a tiny drop in a large and expanding bucket of area the country needs to keep near-constant tabs on. A void, incidentally, that the Indian Air Force and Navy are looking to address in the near term by possibly importing Predator XP drones from the U.S.
The DRDO has been known to refer to the Rustom-II as India’s Predator. The next two years will be crucial to demonstrating that.