Early this month, it was announced that India was on the verge of signing a deal with the US for acquisition of 30 high-end armed Predator drones, 10 each for the Army, Air Force and Navy, at a total cost of around $3 billion (Rs.24,000 crore). The deal has been in the pipeline for many years since first being announced in 2017, and seems to have neared finalisation now.

The deal is believed to have been discussed during the visit to Washington by India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, along with a high-powered team of heads of scientific and industrial departments and agencies, and during meetings with his counterpart, Jake Sullivan, US Deputy Secretary of Defence, Kathleen Hicks, and other US officials. These meetings were part of the first set of interactions under the new initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (i-CET) launched by India and the US in May 2022. This programme covers a wide range of issues across scientific, technological, industrial, defence and strategic domains.

In defence, India appears to be expecting more substantive outcomes from i-CET than have emanated from the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTII) under the Indo-US Defence Agreement. A clear obstacle so far has been US reluctance on technology sharing and transfer, which India is particularly keen on, and US preference for sale of defence equipment with advanced technologies. Under i-CET, India is apparently hopeful of some co-development projects.

Two specific items that have come up for discussion are jet engines, a critical area of interest for India, and aircraft-launched drones. In the former, an offer is believed to have been made by General Electric to co-develop engines for India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), the twin-engine 5th generation fighter being developed by DRDO, while also entering into license production agreements with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for GE-404/414 engines used in different versions of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The air-launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (AL-UAV) under the DTII is based on the understanding that the resultant intellectual property (IP) would be jointly held by India and the US.

While these projects would, if at all, fructify in the near-to-medium term, both India and the US are believed to be keen on an early conclusion to the sale by the US to India of armed Predator drones. Sources in Washington were quoted in various media outlets as saying that the “ball is now in India’s court."

Earlier talks were only for unarmed Predator drones, and the possibility of armed Predators opened up only after India signed the fourth and last of the foundational security agreements, BECA or Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, which would allow the US to transfer equipment with the ability to use US geo-spatial intelligence which the Predator would require to realise its full capabilities.

The exact contours of the Predator deal are yet to be finalised by India. Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar said deliberations were on as to whether the numbers of Predator drones procured need to be “rationalised,” (read reduced) since the long-awaited indigenous drone appears set to become available in the not too distant future.

Why Predator RPV?

The Predator RQ9, also called Reaper or Guardian drones or, more accurately, Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV), are considered among the best in its class. When acquired in the armed version, India will be arguably the first country other than US military allies to receive them.

The RQ9 made by General Atomics of the US is a larger, heavier and far more capable version of the earlier RQ1. The RQ9 Predator is a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone that can operate at the upper end of the MALE ceiling at around 50,000 feet with a range of around 1,800km. When loaded with 450kg munitions and 2x450kg fuel tanks, the RQ9 with 66 feet wingspan has endurance of 42 hours, and 23 hours when fully loaded with munitions. These enable the Predator to loiter above a defined area for long periods for surveillance or while waiting for specific targets.

In the US version, Predators carry GBU Paveway-II laser-guided bombs, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-ground missiles, AGM-114 Hellfire-II air-to-ground missiles and are being modified to carry AIM Stinger air-to-air missiles. The armaments package for India are not known yet.

The Predator comes with a manned control station from where it is piloted remotely. The US Air Force insists on having fully qualified and trained pilots for each RPV, putting considerable strain on human resources, despite repeated requests from the Pentagon to permit other technical personnel to operate the drones. India is developing a separate cadre for drone operations.

The RPV takes off from a normal airfield with a runway of 5,000 feet, whereas some versions enable autonomous take off and landing on 3,000 feet runways. The RQ9 has its own powerful sensors and static as well as video cameras for all-weather day or night operations. By some accounts, it can identify vehicle license plate numbers from 10,000 feet. It is linked with satellite communications, other airborne surveillance and targeting platforms, as well as ground forces for observation and targeting, and is now equipped with electronic warfare suites to enable operations in conflict zones with adversary radars. However, it is believed India is interested mostly in the Predator’s beyond-visual-range (BVR) capabilities while operating in uncontested airspace.

For all its vaunted capabilities, the Predator can also be quite vulnerable, especially when operating against capable or well-equipped adversaries. In the early years of its operations by 2010, 38 Predators of early vintage had been lost during operations in conflict zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. Predators have also been shot down by Houthis over Yemen, and by suspected Wagner forces over Libya. By 2015, over 20 predators had crashed due to a still unidentified problem in its starter motor.

India has been operating two unarmed MQ9 Sea Guardian reconnaissance RPVs on lease from General Atomics. These drones have been used over the Bay of Bengal-Indian Ocean region, the Maldives area as well as in the Himalayan region, and the Armed Forces are believed to be impressed with their performance.

General Atomics Chief Executive Vivek Lall informed the press that he had received feedback of experience of over 3,000 hours flying time covering 26 million sq.km. He also stated that arrangements had been made with Bharat Forge to make landing gear and other parts and sub-assemblies for RPVs. It is believed that if the larger deal for Predators is realised, General Atomics may help set up MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) facilities in India to also handle other Predator drones operated by countries in the region.

Indigenous UAVs

India has been seriously lagging in its development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), even while indigenous development of manned aircraft has accelerated over the past decade or more. This at a time when the security scenario in India’s surroundings has deteriorated, when the role of drones in military applications has gained significant momentum, and when potential adversarial forces have made major advances in drone technology.

India has not only taken an inordinate amount of time to develop a suitable high-performance UAV, it has also failed to develop drones of various sizes and capabilities as the world has seen from Turkey or Iran. Detailed discussion on this topic would be taken up separately. Of relevance to this article, DRDO (Defence Research & Development Organisation) is said to have almost completed all stages of development of an indigenous UAV and handed it over to HAL for limited series production.

Drone development in India had started way back in the 1980s at the National Aeronautics Laboratory (NAL) of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR under the leadership of Rustom Damania. Further development of the UAV called the Light Canard Research Aircraft was taken up later by the Aeronautics Development Establishment (ADE) of DRDO, and the UAV was named Rustom or warrior after the demise of its initial designer.

The successor Rustom-II, later renamed Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance (TAPAS or heat) – Beyond Horizon 201 (TAPAS-BH 201), has gone through a series of prototypes development, each more advanced than the previous one, and had its first flight in 2016. Collaboration with HAL and defence PSU Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) has been built-in so as to enable early design maturation and productionisation.

Tapas-BH-201 is a MALE drone with design inspired by the Predator MQ1, the first version of the Predator. With wingspan of 67 feet, the drone can carry payload of 350 kg and has shown endurance of 18 hours at 28,000 feet, and range of over 250km. DRDO is confident of converting the UAV into an armed version fairly quickly.

The original engine by M/S Austro was discarded after takeover of the company by a China-based firm, after which a Lycoming engine was fitted during trials. This was later replaced by twin 100hp turbo-prop engines from Saturn-NPO of Russia. The UAV takes off from a conventional runway, with satellite link and linked to the indigenous GAGAN navigation system.

Tapas-BH-201 is expected to be around 40% less expensive compared with similar imported UAVs. An indigenous engine is believed to be under development by Tech Mahindra and DRDO’s Vehicle Research & Development Establishment in Ahmedabad. All three Services are believed to be satisfied with the performance of the UAV, and substantial orders are expected, although the limited range of the Tapas would be a serious impediment for Naval operations.

At present, it looks like India may reduce the numbers of predators bought from the US, especially for the Army and the Air Force. It is to be hoped that further improvement and serial production of the Tapas-BH-201, and other drones currently under development, would be accelerated through expedited developmental funding from the government.