Officials at HAL have been reinventing the Kiran MK-II as an unmanned combat vehicle

India's Drone Strategy With Eye On China

In February last year, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and New Space Research & Technologies had signed an agreement "to explore cooperation for joint development and manufacturing of various products and systems in the area of unmanned systems, swarm technology and space systems."

India has been a late starter in using drones as an attack strategy in modern warfare, in fact, the Rustom series is not a new phenomenon. It was initiated in the 80s by the DRDO by late Rustom Damania as part of operational requirements for the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force.

India's Rustom-1 drones were first tested in 2009, although it failed in its first attempt, crashing to the ground.

In successive flights thereafter, Rustom-1 flew uninterrupted and is now part of Army’s arsenal but in 2020 with Chinese troops lurking along the Line of Actual Control(LAC), India's defence establishment has felt the need to not only just upgrade its drone technology but "upgrade" its attack capability as well looking out for US technology in the form of MQ-9 Reaper drones.

India's Rustom Drones

A few years ago, India had test-launched the Rustom-2 drone at Chalakere in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district. It was primarily meant for surveillance built on the US predator model. The Rustom -2 series was initiated keeping in mind India’s defence needs.

The “test-flight” was significant considering it was the first flight in “user configuration with higher power engine” which generally means it has an enhanced surveillance capability, some observers feel up to 24 hours.

India has still not entered the “big game” of attack drones which is dominated by Israel and the US.

Kiran MK-II Converted Into CATS OMCA

Now reports say India has been testing the Kiran MK-II intermediate jet-powered trainer aircraft to convert it into CATS OMCA (optically-manned combat aircraft).

Retired IAF captain Harsh Vardhan Thakur who is an experimental test pilot with HAL, and Bangalore-based New Space Research & Technologies have been working with Indian officials at HAL to reinvent the Kiran MK-II as an unmanned combat vehicle.

The experiment which is still its nascent phase can prove to be a gamechanger especially along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as China continues to eye the eastern Ladakh region including areas in Arunachal Pradesh.

Reports say the experiment could also extend to the Russian-built MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighter jets.

HAL's Combined Air Teaming System

The Kiran MK-II is India's earliest two-seater intermediate jet-powered trainer aircraft manufactured by HAL which took flight in 1976. It was in production throughout the late 70s and was finally put out of production in 1989.

HAL had earlier unveiled its Combined Air Teaming System (CATS) which involved a mothership operating distantly with an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle known as CATS Warrior to strike inside enemy territory.

The unmanned aircraft concept may look like a futuristic project but HAL seems to have made rapid strides in the last few years.

China's UAV Mission

India has no doubt recognised the need to ramp up its drone capability in the last few years especially since tensions escalated along the LAC at Doklam in 2017. Reports say India would need up to 5,000 UAVs over the next 10 years.

China is of course going full throttle on its UAV mission. China started commercial production of the deadly CH-5 Rainbow, which it says is better than the US-made Reaper Drones.

The CH-5 is also available at half the cost, a dangerous precedent for India given its geopolitical scenario.

China's Rocket Force

China has now seamlessly integrated its drones in all three wings of the military - Army, Navy and Air Force with the Rocket Force playing its role to give the communist country an edge in mobile warfare.

In 2016, Reports emerged in July in the Taiwanese press which said China's "Soaring Dragon" UAV( (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) had carried out surveillance mission on a US Navy ship USS Antietam as it sailed along the Taiwan Straits.

The "Soaring Dragon" was first displayed as a model at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2006. In 2016, UAV reportedly went into production.

The "EA-03 Soaring Dragon" reportedly has a combat range of 2,000 kms with turbojet engine propulsion which is mainly used for reconnaissance but the People's Liberation Army(PLA) intends to use it in combat support later.

China's Sea Eagle

The BZK-005 long-range UAV was first spotted in 2015 in East China Sea.

China confirmed it was using the BZK-005 for conducting maritime surveillance over the East China Sea. The UAV was reportedly intercepted by Japan after it violated Japanese air space.

The UAV is a naval drone, also known as the "Sea Eagle" which was developed in early 2000 for maritime surveillance.

'Project Cheetah'

India for its part has also entered the big game with CATS Warriors set to play a big role in future operations as it refines and operationalises the unmanned wingman concept.

Indian officials are increasingly looking at attack drones as a long term strategy to not only conduct reconnaissance operations but also carry out covert missions. In fact, reports claimed that India had made a bid for US MQ-9 Reapers during the Trump administration.

India has already put 'Project Cheetah' in action to upgrade the Heron drones with Israel's help to carry out offensive operations as three branches of the forces - IAF, Army and Indian Navy - will be able to use the drones to ensure security in uncertain terrain.