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Despite reservations expressed by Air Chief Marshal Vivek R Chaudhari, Chief of the Air Staff, regarding the procurement of Armed Drones due to their vulnerability in contested airspace, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is actively exploring the development of stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) and Loyal Wingman systems, driven by the rapidly evolving landscape of modern warfare.

The IAF’s strategic outlook is shaped by the changing dynamics of warfare, with a focus on the “Contours of Future Wars” and the rise of multi-dimensional hybrid warfare, which has been observed in recent global conflicts.

One of the key objectives is to strengthen fighter squadrons, which have been dwindling due to budget constraints and a slow modernization process. The concept of “manned-unmanned teaming” is being emphasized in both the Loyal Wingman and UCAV programs to complement and reinforce the capabilities of existing fighter aircraft.

The IAF is eyeing the procurement of over 100 Loyal Wingman aircraft, which are currently being developed in collaboration with the Bengaluru-based start-up NewSpace Research and Technologies (NRT). The program has already seen successful testing of a scaled model of the Loyal Wingman aircraft, with plans to test a full-scale model after 2025. These aircraft can operate as loyal wingmen to manned aircraft while also conducting strike missions in contested airspace.

Another significant UCAV program, led by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), is focused on the development of a 13-ton UCAV powered by a Dry Kaveri engine. These UCAVs are intended for conducting airstrikes in contested airspace and are expected to complement the capabilities of the Manned 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter jet, especially in air superiority missions deep within enemy airspace.

While concerns about the vulnerability of armed drones persist, the development of stealthy UCAVs and Loyal Wingman systems demonstrates a proactive approach to addressing the changing dynamics of future conflicts.

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