India looks for unmanned combat aircraft from U.S.

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By Gulshan Luthra

New Delhi, Feb.1 (ANI): The Indian armed forces have suffered from time and technology challenges over the last 30 years, but apparently to make up for the lost time, the government has now approved the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) requirements for unmanned combat aircraft, technically called Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs).

India has been buying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from Israel from the late 1990s for the Army for surveillance (only) in border areas. But the success of US combat drones in Afghanistan in neutralising hostile targets with precision had prompted the Indian Air Force (IAF) to ask for these deadly pilotless attack machines several years back.

Reliable sources told India Strategic ( that India has officially mentioned the requirement for Predator C, built by General Atomics, during the visit of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to Washington in December, and that this is likely to be on the US-India bilateral agenda during the official visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi there March-end.

He will be paying his first offical visit to the US this time at the invitation of President Barack Obama, and discussions are on between the officials of the two countries to prepare for what should be on the table for appending signatures during the high-level visit.

India has interest in both Predator XP, which is available for export right away after procedural clearance from the US Departments of State and Defense as it only carries cameras and surveillance equipment, and the Predator C, which can execute precision attacks on terrorists and their vehicles and houses alike.

The armed version however cannot be acquired by India from any country unless it is cleared by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), one of the four denial regimes set up against India after its 1974 nuclear test. The United States, which has spearheaded a campaign for global cooperation with India after 2005 in civil nuclear energy, has promised to have this restriction lifted. The only reservation is from Italy, which is upset over the trial of two of its naval crew after they shot an Indian fisherman, mistaking him for a terrorist (The 34-member grouping requires unanimity in decision-making, and India’s application for membership is pending since June 2015).

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Notably, IAF has serious problems in the number of combat aircraft in its inventory, although now an agreement with France for the acquisition of 36 – or more – Rafale Medium Multi role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) is on the anvil.

The acquisition of UCAVs however is a parallel requirement, and this was stated as such some years back by the then Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne as a natural progression, particularly keeping in mind the hostile terror-infested environment around India.

Understandably both the UAVs and UCAVs are required by IAF, as these are strategically important – they have no pilots onboard and can be controlled from anywhere in the world through satellite communications. There could also be UCAV requirements from the Navy and Army, depending upon the capabilities of the emerging systems and cost factors.

India has been using Israeli Searcher and Heron UAVs. Israel successfully demonstrated the role of UCAVs before the US Air Force (USAF) inducted them, but it is not known if they are available to India as yet. Perhaps yes, as Israel has sold some sophisticated Electronic Warfare (EW) systems including radars to India already. But MTCR restriction would still need to be cleared.

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The Indian Army first purchased the Israeli Searcher Mark-1 UAVs in view of the Pakistan’s Kargil attacks in 1999, and then the IAF and Navy followed with their own requirements. The UAVs are used for surveillance in the border areas and at sea around the Indian Navy formations.

The armed version is a natural progression since then, and whether Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Libya, the western forces have extensively used them there to locate and destroy hostile targets without putting their pilots at harm’s way.

The Predator C, also called Avenger, can fly for about 18 hours, carry some 1,400 kilos of weapons and missiles, and can be triggered into firing them from a command centre on land, ship or air.

There is no official confirmation from New Delhi – these are hardly stated to the press anyway – but there have been media reports in the recent past in this regard. And of course, as India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is yet far away in delivering an indigenous system, the country has to look elsewhere.

General Atomics is a US jewel in technology in nuclear, electromagnetic propulsion and aerial systems. It picked up Dr Vivek Lall, who had successfully led Boeing’s campaigns for selling military aircraft to the IAF and Indian Navy, as its Chief Executive, US and International Strategic Development. Although he has global responsibilities, India is his immediate focus given the fast-developing cooperation between Washington and New Delhi in defence and impending civil nuclear energy. A renowned aerospace scientist, Dr Lall is an American of Indian descent, and has worked also with NASA and Raytheon.

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One of the items on his agenda is the sale of unmanned systems to friendly countries that the company designates in its lingo as Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

Asked about India’s interest in Predator series of UAVs and UCAVs, Dr Lall said he was aware of it but could only say that while the Predator XP was available without any MTCR-related restrictions, any combat drone could only be sold by the US after Congressional clearance and export laws. He said he could not however confirm or deny if India had indeed asked for these lethal flying machines.

He commented though: The Predator-series RPA have been updated with state-of-the-art technologies, including an automatic takeoff and landing capability, redundant flight control surfaces, enhanced avionics, and triple-redundant flight control computers. GA-ASI (General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems Inc.) is also committed to developing a Detect and Avoid (DAA) capability for its RPA.”

They are also useful in disaster relief operations on land and sea, giving real time information of critical areas and help guide personnel and equipment.

Another advantage, according to Dr Lall, was the interoperability of GA-supplied systems with US origin aircraft with IAF and Indian Navy.

Asked about possible transfer of technology and coproduction in India in view of the Indian Government’s Make in India programme, he said General Atomics would be willing to work with international industrial partners, but that this would depend upon the agreements and diplomatic understandings between the US and India. (ANI)

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