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SOURCE: MAHESH SHETTI / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG

2020 saw a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that shook up many in India. Azerbaijan relied heavily on drones, specifically the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made Kamikaze drones in targeting its adversaries missile batteries, air defense radars, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, towed artillery guns, and even multi-barrel rocket launchers that came as a wake-up call for the Indian military planners who have been ignoring advancement of drone technologies in the region that has allowed China, Pakistan and even Iran advance its self and has gone on to build a superior UAV/Drone programs than India.

Armenia and Azerbaijan Drone War, has finally woken the sleeping giants In the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who have finally cleared funding for two important drone programs in India that can take offensive to its rivals. The State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and NewSpace Research and Technologies, a Bengaluru based start-up has got clearance for the development of ALFA-S or Air-Launched Flexible Asset (Swarm).

ALFA-S swarming drones that are fitted inside canisters mounted under the wings of Indian Air Force aircraft that can be deployed that can carry out a suicide attack by hitting the target using the high-explosive warhead carried onboard.

The second program that has been taken up in the county has been that of Indian aerospace firm Newspace collaborating with Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) on a locally-designed unmanned wingman concept. The aircraft will be relatively small with a maximum take-off weight of 1,300kg and a payload of 250kg, which can include small guided munitions. It has a low observable body with twin canted tails.

Indian Army also has now opened up the discussion with new startup companies to develop handheld suicide drones and other smaller drones for surveillance and target acquisitions. Indian Army also has plans to develop bag back Drones to be used for Artillery correction and target surveillance. The rise of multiple startup companies in drone warfare from the private sector has not been easy. At first, the Military largely ignored their concept, and later DRDO ensured that fundings required for their programs are not granted.

DRDO has been a silent critic and also has been working behind the door of not letting this Private start-up entering India’s UAV/Drone Programs in the country. DRDO has been developing Rustom-1 MALE and Rustom-2 HALE Class unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for more than the last decade or more but has failed with a product that meets requirements set by the Military that has forced them to rely on Israeli UAVs for the better part of last one decade or more. DRDO has been blocking imports of more advanced UAVs for the military and also tried to restrict access to test range and other facilities for the local private start-ups.

DRDO’s Nishant unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed in the mid-’90s was disastrous and all four inducted by the Indian Army were lost in crashes and none were ordered again. DRDO Rustom-1 MALE that took to the air in 2009, is nowhere near production-ready nor it was able to impress the military with its capabilities. DRDO’s Rustom-2 HALE Class program after multiple delays and total loss of one prototype has not been able to systems issues and failed to meet its weight target. 2020 saw some progress when it flew with a Gimbal-mounted Electro-Optical [EO] Sensor Payload and onboard Satellite Communication [SATCOM] system it is still 4-5 years away from going into production.

Former Director-General, Artillery, Lt Gen P. Ravi Shankar (Retd), who is associated with IIT Chennai’s drone programs have gone on record and has confirmed that DRDO has multiple times blocked funding for his programs even when many foreign drone companies had approached him to fund his drone programs in the IIT Chennai. Many Private sector companies do say the same off records about protectionist behavior of DRDO in an area where it has fluttered a lot and failed to give desired results for the Military.

For India to advance in UAV/Drone Programs in the shortest period possible, it needs to ignore DRDO and its labs and fund state Educational institutes like IITs and Private Startup companies that have shown far more promising concepts and technologies. Companies like Bharat Drone systems, L&T, and Kalyani are eager to develop MALE Class UAVs in house, and Bharat Drone systems and L&T have already showcased some of the work they have done in the development of Tactical UAVs in the country. Kalyani is already invested in the development of smaller turbojet engines for drone programs.

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