The acquisition of the armed drones has come not a moment too late. For one thing, both China and Pakistan already have such capability, for another India’s indigenous Nishant drone program has been a total disaster.
India will start taking delivery of ten Heron TP armed drones during the PM‘s forthcoming visit to Israel. The acquisition of armed drones is a game changer for Indian air force. It takes the air force - that already operates about 200 Israel made surveillance drones, into the future. The future of air power increasingly looks pilotless. While India paid for the drones in 2015, its delivery was only possible after India entered the Missile technology control regime allowing Israel to deliver such arms.
Armed drones provide tactical flexibility
The armed drones will offer unprecedented tactical flexibility to the IAF. These drones can be useful in those operations where Pilot lives would otherwise be at risk. Manufactured by the Israel aircraft industry the Heron TP can fly and hover for up to 40 hours at a time. It is powered by a 1200 horsepower engine and can fly up to 45,000 feet high. They can also carry 1000 kilos guided missiles and bombs. These characteristics make them ideal should India want to do another surgical strike. All this can be achieved without risking the lives of its pilots.
Endurance is the real asset of Heron TP drones.
Pilots will not be able to carry out 40-hour missions at one go while armed drones do this routinely. The drone has enhanced all-weather capability which allows it to operate in bad weather and with infra-red night vision camera mounting can also operate in the dark.
Besides undertaking risky cross-border hits the drones have several other roles. They can be used to take out identified targets such as artillery batteries or kill armed intruders from across the LOC. The drones can also undertake missions such as battle damage assessment in case of war. They can attack terror camps and related infrastructure such as supply lines.
They can assist fighter aircraft in target acquisition and boost ground attack capabilities in difficult to reach terrain such as high mountain passes. Their long endurance levels also mean that they can be of great value in joint operations with the Navy and can provide cover to maritime assets. They can also provide tactical advance air cover for army units.
A droned out Neighbourhood
The acquisition of the armed drones has come not a moment too late. For one thing both China and Pakistan already have such capability, for another India’s indigenous Nishant drone program has been a total disaster.
All Nishant drones that the DRDO provided to the army crashed and the programme has been put in cold storage. Meanwhile the Chinese are developing a new generation of armed drones the Wing Long II, however, this has a weaker engine than the heron’s and can carry only about 200 kilos of weapons and its endurance is estimated to be less than one-third of the Israeli counterpart.
However, it costs just about $5 million apiece compared to $40 million for the Heron. Pakistan too has china made Ch3A armed drone and a homemade Buraq drone. Both can carry an estimated 100 kilos of weapons but their weaker engine does not give them a range or endurance comparable to the Heron.
Besides the drones, India has also purchased $350 million worth of other weapons including the supersonic Barak surface to air missile systems and next generation mine countermeasure systems. The India-Israel defence relationship is deepening and while high cost of the defence equipment remains an issue - Israel is increasingly providing weapons to India that no other country can. PM Modi’s visit to Israel will further cement this very important strategic partnership.
(The author is a Delhi-based security analyst for defence, foreign policy stories.He was also a visiting fellow at the Institute of Chinese studies, Delhi)