The successful test of SWiFT, a prototype of the upcoming Ghatak stealth combat drone, is a major milestone for India as militaries globally adapt to new-age warfare

by Pradip R Sagar

While India’s deal with the United States to procure advanced ‘hunter-killer’ Predator drones is taking time to materialise, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has moved a step closer to developing the country’s own stealth combat drones capable of firing missiles and dropping bombs.

India-US ties are going through a rough patch after Washington asked New Delhi to come clear on an alleged conspiracy to eliminate Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American-Canadian citizen, on US soil. While leaders of both nations are working hard to iron out the differences, voices from a section in the Washington power corridors have started calling for a review of bilateral defence ties.

The strain in diplomatic relations has, to some extent, hit the pace of negotiations for military purchases, including the Predator drone deal. The proposed deal is for 31 drones, in which the Indian Navy will get 15 Sea Guardian drones and the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army eight Sky Guardian drones each from US defence major General Atomics. These high-altitude, long-endurance drones can fly continuously for over 35 hours and carry four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kilos of bombs.

The US is yet to respond to India’s Letter of Request for the deal worth $3 billion (around Rs 24,935 crore) despite the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), India’s top weapons procurement body, on June 15 giving the deal a go-ahead.

In the meantime, Indian defence scientists have cracked an opportunity. On December 15, the DRDO carried out a flight test of SWiFT, a stealth wing technology demonstrator that looks similar to the deadly US B-2 Bomber jet, in Chitradurga, Karnataka. The SWiFT is the prototype, or scaled-down version, of the upcoming unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) Ghatak, a stealth combat drone. While the SWiFT weighs just one tonne, the Ghatak UCAV is expected to be 13 tonnes.

DRDO scientists claim Ghatak will be much faster than foreign armed drones like the MQ9 Reaper, Predator and Sea Guardian. According to a defence scientist, Ghatak is capable of firing missiles and dropping bombs fast enough to avoid detection by enemy radars.

The Aeronautical Development Establishment, DRDO’s lab that developed the SWiFT, announced that a successful flight trial with tailless configuration had been carried out from the Aeronautical Test Range in Chitradurga. The ministry of defence stated that with this flight in the tailless configuration, India had joined an elite club of countries that have mastered this flying wing technology.

The SWiFT project was sanctioned in 2016 with barely Rs 70 crore, the primary intent being to demonstrate stealth technology and high-speed landing technology in autonomous mode, said a defence scientist. Another scientist explained that every aircraft, to be able to fly, requires a wing, horizontal and vertical tail, and fuselage. However, SWiFT had none of these things and is a single lift surface.

The SWiFT’s airframe, undercarriage and landing gear, flight controls, and avionics system were developed indigenously, powered by a Russian turbofan made by NPO-Saturn. Most of its avionics and electronics are part of Tapas-BH-201, a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Development of the Tapas drone is in its final stages and may well end the Indian military’s dependence on foreign UAVs.

India is among the few modern militaries not to have armed drones. Even smaller countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan and South Africa have been using weaponised drones. Currently, Indian forces are dependent on foreign drones, such as UAVs Heron and Searcher from Israel, but even these are used only to gather intelligence.

The Russia-Ukraine war has highlighted the role of drones in combat. A video footage circulating on social media shows the Turkish combat drone Bayraktar TB2 successfully striking the Russian army and armoured vehicles. The same drones were used in Libya and in the battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2020, videos of Armenian tanks and artillery positions being decimated by Azerbaijan’s drones showed the world the changing character of new-age wars.