India’s military wants to arm the country’s Israeli-made drones with smart bombs. “Amid border tension with China, the armed forces are pushing a case for arming their Heron UAVs with laser-guided bombs, precision-guided munitions and anti-tank missiles for taking out enemy positions and armored regiments” according to India’s Economic Times newspaper.
In addition, the Indian armed forces plans to request an armed version of the U.S.-made MQ-9B SeaGuardian, an upgraded maritime variant of the MQ-9 Reaper strike and surveillance drone. “The three services have come to a conclusion that India should opt for a weaponized drone rather than the 22 reconnaissance and surveillance Sea Guardian drones approved in 2017 by the U.S, administration for supply to India,” government sources told the Hindustan Times.
If the reports are true, then India will amass a formidable fleet of armed Israeli and U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles. India already has 90 Herons, split among the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. The Heron, made by Israel Aerospace Industries, is a medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle. Designed as a surveillance drone equipped with cameras and radar, but like other drones such as the U.S. MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, it can be armed with missiles. The Indian Army and Air Force have deployed surveillance Herons to the disputed Indian region of Ladakh, to keep an eye on Chinese forces with whom India has fought recent border clashes.
But China has been reinforcing the Sino-Indian border – known as the Line of Actual Control, or LAC — with advanced weapons, including new light tanks and artillery. China has also stationed additional jet fighters and possibly air defense sites along the LAC, which will make it more difficult for manned Indian Air Force aircraft to provide air support.
Project Cheetah calls for arming the 90 Herons into robotic air support. In addition to precision-guided munitions, the Herons would receive improved sensors. “The armed forces have proposed to equip the drones with stronger surveillance and reconnaissance payloads for keeping an eye on enemy locations and stations and take them out, if required,” said the Times.
This suggests the Herons might be for armed reconnaissance, maintaining surveillance over the Himalayan mountains and valleys of Ladakh, and firing missiles and smart bombs if appropriate targets are spotted and ground controllers authorize the strike.
Significantly, Indian defense officials said that armed drones would also be useful for counterinsurgency operations. In addition to the Ladakh border, where Indian and Chinese troops have clashed over China’s attempts to seize control of more territory, India also faces insurgencies in Kashmir and elsewhere.
The Heron has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 7 tons and can carry a 3-ton payload, according to the manufacturer. It has a wingspan of 54 feet, a speed of 161 miles per hour, a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet and a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). With its bulbous nose and wide, slender wings, it looks somewhat like an MQ-9 Reaper, though a bit smaller. IAI also makes an upgraded Heron, known as the Heron TP or Eitan.
Reports surfaced in 2019 that India was looking to buy the Heron TP. But Project Cheetah appears to be aimed at arming India’s existing fleet of Herons.
The MQ-9B SeaGuardian – a maritime version of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian – is a 7-ton unmanned UAV equipped with Lynx multimode radar for detecting naval targets. With a range of more than 5,500 miles and a maximum endurance of 35 hours in the air, it would be a useful tool for patrolling the vast stretches of the Indian Ocean, where China is expanding its naval presence.
However, the SeaGuardian can also be weaponized, but only if approved by the U.S. government. “Customers with special clearance can use their payload space to equip an MQ-9 with a weapon system,” General Atomics spokesman C. Mark Brinkley told me. Deployed on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the mountainous 2,500-mile border between China and India, a long-endurance drone that can fly at 40,000 feet over the Himalayas might be useful.
Meanwhile, Chinese drones have been spying on Indian forces in Ladakh, according to Indian media. China also has armed drone such as the Wing Loong. Which raises the strong possibility that the disputed border could be the scene for both India and China to employ drone strikes.
The Ladakh region of the Himalayas, where mountains tower as high as 15,000 feet, can make aerial and ground operations difficult in the thin air and extreme temperatures. Under those conditions, unmanned strike aircraft may be a good solution.