Unmanned Systems Options for India

Unmanned systems are becoming favoured objects of desire for militaries across the world especially as they get wedded to Artificial Intelligence in almost every segment of military technology

Issue: 2 / 2019By Group Captain A.K. Sachdev (Retd)Photo(s): By GA-ASI
Indian Air Force reportedly has shown some interest in Predator

The significance that leading world militaries attach to unmanned systems, is evident from the huge investments and interest in R&D in the domain of unmanned systems on land, on the sea or in the air. The number of countries holding unmanned systems for military use is estimated to be more than a hundred. The Indian Army is the second largest in the world, the Indian Air Force (IAF) the fourth largest and the Indian Navy amongst the top seven globally. However, regrettably, with almost three decades of R&D in unmanned systems, India has not been able to come close to the leading edge of technologies associated with unmanned systems. As a result, the Indian military remains largely dependent on imports to meet its military requirements of unmanned systems. Needless to say, reliance on foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and the high cost of their wares, keep inventories far below the requirements as perceived by the three services. This article looks at Indian options for military unmanned systems.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are the unmanned systems most in demand and that is the area where the majority of development has taken place although ground vehicles, fighting robots, unmanned submersibles and small robotic machines for mine detection and bomb disposal etc, are also in the limelight. All the three wings of the Indian Armed Forces have UAVs on their inventories, but authentic figures are hard to come by as these are not available in the public domain. The prominent unmanned systems are Searcher 1 (all three services have used this at some time or the other), Searcher 2, Heron 1, Heron 2 (or Heron TP), Harpy 1 and Harop (Harpy 2, the armed version of Harpy, under consideration by the IAF). According to one estimate, the total figure of unmanned systems with all three services is around 200. However, this quantitative assessment does not give a clear idea of the qualitative capability as the size, range, role and loiter capabilities of various unmanned systems that vary across wide spans. UAVs are invaluable in the continual war against terrorists or militants and this fact was highlighted by the attack on Pathankot airfield. Kargil had nudged India towards acquiring surveillance capability in hard to patrol terrain. Given its land border 1,5106 km long sitting astride seven international borders including those with China and Pakistan, the need to have the wherewithal to remotely keep an eye on the sensitive stretches of our borders is critical.


India began developing indigenous UAVs in the 1990s when Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was directed to produce India’s first Nishant UAV based on the requirement of the Indian Army for a platform for intelligence gathering over enemy territory. The Nishant undertook its maiden flight in 1995. However four Nishants were lost in accidents and the Army lost interest in the craft. Starting 2003, the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) then developed a Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV Rustom-I based on Rutan Long-EZ Homebuilt aircraft developed by American based Rutan Aircraft Factory. Rustom-1 was supposed to be Technology Demonstrator for more advanced and more capable UAVs. Rustom-I had its first flight in 2009, but the project was not of much interest to the Indian military due to the slow pace of development and an inadequate sensor package. Rustom-I is unlikely to ever be a full-scale production UAV although the project is not yet officially deceased. Tapas (BH-201), earlier known as Rustom-II, made its first flight in 2016, but had major technical problems. It will take a long time for it to be an operational UAV for use use by the IAF although DRDO has announced that it will be ready for operational use by 2020. In 2014, DRDO had unveiled Panchi, a wheeled version of the Nishant, but its future is as yet uncertain. Some smaller UAV projects initiated by DRDO which have had some success are Pilot-less Target Drones such as Abhyas, Lakshay and Netra which is a lightweight, autonomous UAV for surveillance and reconnaissance operations. However, so far, there has not been a major UAV programme that has been successful. India has also initiated studies and research to develop an autonomous UCAV called Aura which DRDO describes as long-range, self-defending, high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon carrying capabilities. Aura is expected to have stealth properties to make it undetectable by radar and thus suitable for cross-border strikes. In another related development, in May last year, Dr Deodhare, Director, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) announced that his organisation had been cleared by the government to commence work on the development of an Unmanned Light Combat Aircraft Tejas. This will fast-track development of indigenous stealth autonomous UCAV programme. Succinctly put, with the public sector at the lead, development of indigenous unmanned systems is unlikely to satisfy the growing needs of the Indian Armed Forces for such systems in the near future.


Painfully slow progress and very low levels of technology as compared to the leading edge of unmanned systems worldwide, has led to imports which at high prices, keeping inventories low. Despite the huge push for ‘Make in India’ by the present government, the Indian military continues to be dependent on imports of unmanned systems.

Despite the huge push for ‘Make in India’ by the present government, the Indian military continues to be dependent on imports of unmanned systems

The United States and Israel are the leading manufacturers of unmanned systems in the world. Israel has so far proved a reliable provider of UAVs to India and is the main supplier for the Indian Armed Forces. Indeed, Heron 1 (Israeli name Machatz 1), a MALE UAV developed by Israel, was offered to India for validation and trial under the variegated terrain and climatic conditions prevalent in India, thus making India its first user nation. Israel can be persuaded to partner with Indian private sector entities for development of indigenous unmanned systems. The fact that Israel is the foremost producer of unmanned systems, its readiness to cooperate with India should be exploited for nurturing the Indian private sector. Needless to say, there would be resistance from the well-entrenched, but grossly incompetent public sector and that is where the government has to show resolve if India has to move forward in this arena. Private participation is the first and foremost option that holds the promise of meeting Indian military needs of unmanned systems.

Simultaneously, the public sector’s modest achievements so far can be built upon to advance towards bigger and more lethal systems — with Israeli help if possible and if Israel agrees to collaborate with the public sector.


The latest Israeli unmanned system being considered for purchase is the Harop attack drone which carries on board 23 kg of explosives and is capable of searching, identifying and loitering above targets before attacking and destroying them. If a target is not engaged, it can return to its base. The much publicised surgical strike into Pakistani Occupied Kashmir presents a scenario wherein armed UAVs such as the Harop could be used instead of risking precious lives to achieve similar or better objectives. For this and other roles, unmanned systems are becoming favoured objects of desire for militaries across the world especially as they get wedded to Artificial Intelligence in almost every segment of military technology. India has the capability to be at the leading edge of such technologies, but its R&D is stunted on account of its being largely in the inherently inefficient public sector. Recent increase in interest by Indian private sector to cultivate unmanned systems largely driven by commercial interests after the promulgation of a policy in civilian use of drones, is an encouraging development to watch.