India has finalised the deal to buy four new Heron TP drones from Israel that will initially be used in surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but will eventually be upgraded and armed with missiles for precision strikes under Project Cheetah when it kicks off, News18.com has learnt.
Defence sources said a contract to this effect has been signed and that the drones should arrive by the end of this year. Sources added that while the initial plan was to lease the four drones from Israel, India later decided to buy them instead.
When Project Cheetah is finalised, the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Heron TP UAVs in the inventory of the Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF) will not just be upgraded with advanced satellite communication and sensors for longer surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but are also likely to be armed with air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided munitions for precision strikes.
Some of the upgraded Heron TP UAVs will have a loitering time of nearly 24 hours and a communication range of 1,000 km.
India has also been looking to buy 30 MQ-9B High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) armed drones from the US, 10 for each of the defence services, costing a total of $3 billion.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met General Atomics CEO Vivek Lall whose company manufactures the armed Predator drones. Sources say there will be further discussions with the United States on the transfer of technology aspect before the deal is sealed.
The Navy, meanwhile, has already leased two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics for surveillance in the Indian Ocean.
India Going for Wide Range of Drones
The developments come at a time when the Indian military has been working to ramp up its drone inventory, with the three services procuring different categories of unarmed drones with varying classifications, as well as counter-drone systems.
For instance, the Army alone is procuring hundreds of unarmed drones across various categories for surveillance purposes, most of them from indigenous firms.
Multiple micro and mini UAVs are being indigenously procured, including 200 swarm drones, from two Indian firms — Raphe mPhibr and New Space Technologies. The former is also providing Logistics Drones, which can ferry 20 kg load for 10 km one way to high-altitude areas, defence sources said.
Earlier this month, the Army had also signed a contract to procure over 100 explosives-carrying drones ‘SkyStriker’ to be manufactured by a Bengaluru-based joint venture between Israel’s Elbit System and India’s Alpha Design.
Also known as loitering munitions, the drones, which hit the spotlight when used by Azerbaijan against Armenia last year leading to the latter’s defeat over Nagorno-Karabakh, can detect a target and explode there.
The Army had, earlier this year, inked $20-million contract deal with ideaForge to procure SWITCH UAVs for surveillance operations in high-altitude areas.
As per defence sources, the Navy is also planning to procure about a dozen ship-launched drones from an indigenous firm, while the IAF is also in the process of procuring swarm drones.
“Over 500 drones are being procured by the three services from emergency procurement funds alone,” a defence source told News18.com. Out of these, over 300 drones will be procured by the Army alone.
Different commands of the defence forces are also in the process of procuring micro drones using local funds which can be used for limited surveillance missions. For instance, the Northern Command of the Army has published a Request for Information for UAVs which can carry out surveillance.
Counter-Drone Systems Also on the List
As part of its emergency procurements, the Army is also buying around 100 man portable counter-drone systems and Integrated Drone Detection and Interdiction System from indigenous firms. The force has also procured counter-drone systems from Bengaluru-based Defsys Solutions.
As per the defence ministry, the Navy has signed a contract with Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) to procure an indigenous comprehensive Naval Anti-Drone System (NADS) with hard kill and soft kill features.
The IAF has also placed a Rs 155-crore order with Hyderabad-based firm Zen Technologies for supply of anti-drone systems.