At present Israel’s Heron drone forms the backbone of Indian Armed Forces RPA. The tri-services are dependent upon Israel-made Searcher-II and Heron UAVs for their ISR operation. These drones are Medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs used for ISR mission & has range limited range & endurance. India is planning to upgrade these RPAs under Project Cheetah.
Under Project Cheetah, 90 Heron drones of the tri-services are to be upgraded. Earlier it was reported that these drones will also be armed to carry out offensive operations against the enemy.
To Boost ISR capabilities, India to acquire more Heron Mark2 and Hermes 900 MALE UAVs from Israel
However, in November 2023, The Print has reported that India has dropped plans to arm its fleet of Israeli Heron Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and will now only upgrade Heron’s communication capability to satellite connectivity to allow them better endurance capabilities.
The Herons currently have an endurance of about 24 hours and can transmit back live video feed and images of about 200-250 km (range). The SATCOM link upgrade will give these drones an unlimited range of transmission. As per the 17th July report from ANI, the Heron UAVs will be upgraded by HAL with over 60% indigenous content.
India has also procured 4 Heron MK2 UAVs from Israel. These UAVs have been inducted by the Indian Air Force and are deployed at Forward Airbase in the Northern Sector. The squadron operating the Heron Mark2 drones is being called as the ‘Warden of the North’ and has been carrying out surveillance missions along borders with both China and Pakistan. The drones have been equipped with satellite communication links and are the most advanced drones in the Indian armed forces.
The plan to upgrade Heron drones with weapons has been shelved as India is procuring MQ-9 drones from the US. India is acquiring 31 MQ-9 drones out of which 10 RPAs will be made in the US and the remaining 21 are to be built in India.
These are High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs with higher altitudes of operation and endurance compared to MALE UAVs.
The local manufacturing of the RPAs will give India the advantage of various technologies that can be transferred in terms of radar processing, sensor fusion, some of the composites that are part of the aircraft, titanium alloy castings for the undercarriage and so many others, payloads integration of the weapons.
The deal is estimated to be around $3 Billion and is expected to be inked soon.
Hermes Starliner drones
Indian Armed Forces are also in the process of inducting Israeli Hermes UAVs. In November 2023, The Hindu reported that the three services have contracted two Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) each through the fourth tranche of emergency procurement. While the Army and Navy have procured the Hermes 900 manufactured by Elbit Systems, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has procured the Heron Mk2 from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The contracts have been concluded and the deliveries are expected early next year. Adani Aerospace and Defence in partnership with Elbit Systems – Adani Elbit UAV Complex – manufactures the complete carbon composite aerostructures for Hermes 900 and Hermes 450 in Hyderabad.
97 Made-in-India drones
India has also developed its indigenous MALE drone called Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201 or TAPAS BH-201.
On 17th July 2023, ANI reported that Indian Defence forces planned to acquire 97 made-in-India drones for ISR operations along the borders with China and Pakistan. The procurement will cost over Rs10,000 crore with the Indian air force will be leading the procurement process for tri-services. Air Force will be getting most of these drones for operation. While the name of the drone has not been stated in the report, it’s most likely going to be Tapas.
The user evaluation trials of Tapas are reported to commence in August 2023 and complete by the end of the year.