Imports Iffy, Indian Army Scouts 60 All-Indian Surveillance Drones

Could this be the first true foot in the door for Indian-built military drones? The Indian Army has opened what will hopefully result in a proper contest — for 60 Indian developed and built short range surveillance drones kitted for military airborne surveillance. The prospective competition, Livefist learns, is likely the Army’s recognition that the last five years has thrown up a profusion of private sector Indian firms that have proven the ability to build drone platforms for military missions, and have proven to be substantially cheaper than comparable systems available internationally.

Companies all the way from Tata Advanced Systems and Mahindra Aerospace down to firms fresh out of engineering college incubation have pitched the Army with low-cost platforms that the Army could seriously consider, instead of clambering up the import flagpole again. A flagpole, it should be said, that has failed to supply the Army with anything substantial by way of airborne surveillance in over a decade.

The contest at hand is itself an old, failed effort dusted off and tweaked. And smartly to put the focus directly on Indian industry.

The Army is essentially looking for a fixed wing drone platform with 10 hour endurance and 200 km line of sight operations. In its request for information, published this month, the Army states that the drones are ‘intended to be used for aerial surveillance over a large area by day and night for a sustained period’. The Army also wants the full deal on payloads, not that it ever really holds back on the specs when scouting equipement: Electro Optical and Infra Red (IR) with Laser Designator Payload, Electronic Intelligence Payload, Communication Payload, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) Payload, Maritime Patrol Radar (MPR) Payload, Radio Relay, Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF), Traffic Collision Avoidance Systems (TCAS).

What’s interesting is that the program is being seen as the first proper dipstick test by the Army after years of sampling unmanned systems developed to reasonable maturity by private Indian firms, both big and small. At Aero India earlier this year, there was a visible profusion of tactical drone platforms across the board, both from government-owned labs as well as Indian firms.

‘The Government of India invites responses to this request only from Indian Vendors. The vendors are to include their capability to indigenously design, develop and absorb the technology sought and provide life time support,’ says the RFI, calling for interested vendors to submit their initial pitches no later than December 28 this year. A request for proposal (RFP) that formally opens the procurement process is expected to be out in January 2018. It will be interesting to see if a merit-based contest will really square juggernaut corporations with unlimited access to foreign tech against smaller private firms with deep development initiatives.

The inflow of drone systems into the Army has been an embarrassing trickle compared to its huge and varied state requirement that stretches from hand-launched drones for the Special Forces to high performance long endurance unmanned systems. The Army currently operates Israeli-origin Searcher Mk.II and home-built Nishant drones, both with roughly comparable specifications. The Army is said to be uninterested in more Nishant drones, though the DRDO is currently proving the wheeled Panchi variant, presumably off feedback that the rail launcher rigmarole was too much for the Army to lug around.

The Army has tip-toed around the indigenous Rustom-I tactical drone platform, but has committed nothing so far to a substantial procurement. Why the military has so far failed to successfully yoke together private airframers with more specialised sensor payload makers from home or abroad remains a quandary, especially given that many of the these firms are guided or led by ex-military personnel.

India appears sorted for the moment on the high performance UAS front — it is in line to contract for U.S. built MQ-9B Sea Guardian maritime surveillance drones (with the possibility of armed versions to follow), has ordered more IAI Heron drones from Israel, is in flight with the indigenous Tapas (Rustom-II). It is in shorter range and unit level systems that it has suffered an inexplicable lack of procurement success.

Building 60 medium performance drones to meet the Army’s requirement is, quite literally, no big deal — especially if the scope of the program allows for foreign collaborations. The real challenge, as with a plenitude of failed or ongoing processes has shown, is seeing it to the finish line in the spirit of the contours set down by the Army. That could truly open important doors for local aerospace industry, if that’s the point at all.

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