Newspaper reports this week said the Indian Army is all set to procure 200 U.S.-built AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven hand launched drones for infantry units, part of a furious but familiar flurry of procurements amidst border tensions with China in Ladakh. The reports have raised questions over whether the Indian government really needs to import basic unmanned systems of the kind that are already available in country — and are, in fact, in final stages of field evaluations by the Indian Army itself.
While the Indian Army hasn’t commented on reported plans to import 200 Raven drones, the RQ-11 is not an unfamiliar product to the force.
The Indian Army got its first taste of the RQ-11 Raven in 2010 during an iteration of the Yudh Abhyas joint exercises in Babina, India, and has gotten hands on experience with the system often in exercises that have followed. Demonstrations of the Raven played an important role at the time in persuading the Indian Army that it needed infantry man-portable hand-launched drones. Importantly, if the Indian Army does proceed with reported plans to contract the Raven, it would plainly mean things have come full circle at the highest levels, delivering on something agreed upon five years ago. The Raven was actually explicitly listed in the 10-year India-US defence cooperation framework in 2015.
The Indian Army hasn’t officially commented on the reported Raven import plan, though it comes at a time when the Directorate of Infantry is near completing an evaluation of two comparable Indian-built drone systems to meet a requirement under the Mini-UAV (MUAV) program. As of December 2019, two Indian companies — Tata Advances Systems Ltd (TASL) and IdeaForge — have emerged finalists, though it hasn’t made any forward movement in the last six months, possibly owing to the Covid19 pandemic.
The product fielded by IdeaForge is the Switch VTOL/fixed-wing hybrid drone, seen in the video above undergoing trials in the Ladakh theatre. The drone is being pitched as a flexible ‘all terrain dominator’ that builds on the success of the Netra quadcopter family already popular with the Indian forces and paramilitary. IdeaForge is betting on both its existing relationships as well as the Switch’s unique hybrid flight features to swing a deal.
Since February this year, IdeaForge has enlisted the might of defence giant L&T through an MoU on unmanned systems. In a statement during the signing of the MoU on February 7, the companies had said, ‘The MoU involves collaboration on technology, products, deployment and go-to-market strategies. It will unlock the full potential of unmanned systems in security, surveillance and protection solutions. With the ever-increasing adoption of drone technology, the L&T-ideaForge partnership will redefine the landscape of unmanned systems.’
While the drone business is being looked at very seriously by L&T, the private sector behemoth is also frontrunner, for what is all set to be its biggest aerospace venture — a partnership in India’s fifth generation fighter project, reported first here on Livefist.
The other finalist, Tata Advanced Systems Ltd is understood to have fielded the Aquilon. In 2016 the Indian Army ordered 49 Aquilon hand-launched infantry drones, developed by Aurora Integrated Systems, a company funded and supported by TASL.
A third contender Dynamatic Technologies Ltd (DTL) exited the Indian Army’s MUAV contest in November 2019. The company had tied up with Israel’s IAI in 2017 with an agreement to pitch a modified version of the IAI BirdEye (DTL called it ‘Indradhanush’) to the Indian Army for the MUAV requirement.
The Indian Army’s drone procurement plan has been piecemeal at best, with no integrated strategy for a meaningful infusion of technologies across combat regiments. In September 2018, for instance, the Army procured an unspecified number of SpyLite drones (video above) from Cyient Solutions & Systems Pvt. Ltd (an Indo-Israeli partnership) for infantry units deployed in Ladakh.
The Indian Army has a separate effort to procure 60 medium performance drones from Indian developers, detailed by Livefist here.
In the last decade, Indian private sector firms as big as the Tatas, L&T and Mahindra (see photo below) and as small as incubation firms and startups have invested in unmanned system product portfolios, united in the assessment of a large and expanding requirement within the military, paramilitary and police forces. It now remains to be seen if the Indian Army can make sense of the available systems in country and structure its procurements accordingly.
While the private sector has a profusion of indigenously developed products as well as license-marketed drone offerings from companies in Israel and elsewhere, India’s state-owned aviation complex also has a list of infantry drone products that haven’t — for whatever reason — seen service entry. These include the Suchan, developed by the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL), and the DRDO Indian Eagle.
— Livefist (@livefist) February 15, 2017