Last Updated: 7 March 2017 @ 1409HRS – Scroll down for updates
In a major step forward for what is by far India’s most ambitious aviation exercise, the first budgetary funds have begun to flow into Project Ghatak. The classified effort to build a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle formally received sanction as a ‘Lead-in Project’ last May, with the first funds released earlier this year. A project that has direct oversight from the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Security Advisor, Ghatak (which began as the DRDO’s Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft – AURA) has remained steadily out of view. Unheard of in public until it was scooped right here on Livefist seven years ago, precious little is known about the project beyond the very basics. Livefist spoke to a range of persons either associated with the programme or aware of developments, allowing us to put together what is the first comprehensive update in years:
What we know so far for certain is that the Ghatak will be powered by a modified dry thrust version of the Kaveri engine (read on for more details of this modification), will sport a flying wing planform with internal weapons (as revealed in the first official images here on Livefist in 2012) and will sport stealth characteristics developed wholly in-house. Let’s now get into what hasn’t ever been reported before about the Ghatak/AURA programme.
While the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is overseeing the programme along with the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the real R&D is being frontfooted by two academic institutions: IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur. Since 2013, low speed experiemental studies have been carried out on the Ghatak’s serpentine intake by a team at IIT Bombay. This team has been made a kind of mini ‘Skunk Works’ towards proving computational fluid dynamics on the Ghatak, with no limits on resources and access to facilities.
Two, two specialised research teams at IIT Kanpur were roped in in 2015 for wind tunnel testing of a low RCS intake (work began in mid-2016). The second was even more significant — in November 2015, a team from IIT Kanpur was brought on board to conduct and study the autonomous flight of a low RCS aircraft configuration with a ducted fan for multiple flight modes. Scientists shared the following image with Livefist, never seen before, that provides the first official schematic of the power/thrust configuration on the Ghatak.
Over the last three-four years, the Aeronautical Development Agency has been made aware by several foreign airframers, including stealth pioneer Lockheed-Martin, Dassault, Boeing, BAE Systems,and even MiG Corp that they’d be willing to assist the Ghatak programme in a possible variety of ways — either as offsets, or a commercial consultancy arrangement. Livefist can however confirm that the Narendra Modi government has decided that the stealth component of the Ghatak programme will be entirely in-house, and will be limited to academic institutions and private industry in country. Decisions of this kind have changed in the past (notably with the LCA Tejas programme), but the highest levels in government are clear at this time that programme ought to develop its own core technologies without external help.
Things won’t be strictly in-house on the engine though. We do know that the modified Kaveri engine for the Ghatak/AURA is to be the second big part of the project. Reported first by Livefist and confirmed years later by Defence Minister Parrikar, we now know that an initial sum of about $35 million has begun to flow into the the pre-project part of the programme since early 2016. A total of approximately $450 million will be spent from the Indian side in bringing the Kaveri engine to satisfactory operating standards through a tech partnership with France’s Snecma as part of committed offsets from the Indian Rafale contract. Top sources confirm that the technology infusion from France intends to make the Kaveri a standard engine for the LCA Tejas, to assist its modification for the Ghatak and for twin-configuration on the AMCA.
Scientists on the AURA/Ghatak programme confirm to Livefist that concept UCAV is tied in several ways to the fifth generation AMCA development (Livefist had a big update here this week on the AMCA), which itself could see technology infusions from a line-up of interested suitors, including Saab, Boeing and Dassault Aviation. The latter is keen to use its Rafale deal offset commitments to feed technologies into the Ghatak (and AMCA) programmes. The ‘Lead-in project’ sanction that the ADA obtained for the government was in fact a joint sanction for both programmes, given the huge number of common R&D elements, including shaping, materials, construction, intake geometry, data-links and avionics, weapons and of course the Kaveri engine. Top sources at ADA say that full project sanction for the modified Kaveri engine and the Ghatak will come likely late in 2018 once the design phase reaches a satisfactory stage.
An interesting development: the precision guided weapons for the Ghatak will see extensive private sector participation. Companies like Vem Technologies and handful more presented their wares at this year’s Aero India show, including laser-guided weapons. An executive at Vem Technologies said they had been sounded out about building specialised weapons for India’s unmanned programmes, and that there would be future activity to demonstrate capabilities.
UPDATE / 7 MARCH: Livefist can now confirm that a metal full-scale model of the Ghatak is currently under fabrication by a private firm in Bengaluru in coordination with the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). The exercise was ordered late last year by DRDO chief Dr S. Christopher. The full-scale model will look to serve two preliminary purposes: gauge detection range and ‘dry’ radar cross section, i.e., prior to the application of in-development advanced low-observability/RCS reduction features and/or special coatings. Livefist has also learnt that the DRDO and Dassault Aviation are in detailed discussions on the utilisation of part of the latter’s offset commitments from the Rafale deal to bring advanced technologies and software (some of it from the nEUROn programme) to the Ghatak project and help speed things up till the full-scale engineering & design (FSED) phase. Teams from Dassault and ADA have met twice, with a third engagement likely in May this year. A team from ADA has also been invited to France to get a closer look at Dassault’s work in the UCAV space centred around the nEUROn programme.
[NOTE: Since the subject matter of this post pertains to a classified Indian project, the information and data have been vetted by Livefist through our government sources before posting. What you read here is information permitted for public domain reading.]