India is finally getting set to launch an ambitious project to develop its own stealth combat drones or UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles), which will be capable of firing missiles and precision-guided munitions at enemy targets and then returning to home bases to re-arm for further missions.
Sources said the government was close to approving a Rs 2,650 crore Project Ghatak to develop the futuristic "Indian Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle", which has already been cleared by the defence ministry. "The project is now being evaluated by an expert committee set up by the finance ministry. Once approved, Project Ghatak will be placed before the cabinet committee on security for the final nod," said a source.
Project Ghatak flows from the earlier AURA (autonomous unmanned research aircraft) programme, which was sanctioned in 2009 at a cost of Rs 12.50 crore to carry out a "conceptual and feasibility study" for the future Indian UCAV. "The (AURA) project was successfully completed in April 2013 within the time schedule," minister of state for defence Rao Inderjit Singh told Parliament earlier this month.
Project Ghatak, initiated by the Aeronautical Development Agency-DRDO combine in consultation with the IAF, now plans to bring in "collaborators" from the initial stage itself. Weighing less than a fighter jet since it will be "more of a flying-wing in design", the UCAV will take at least a decade to become fully-operational.
Interestingly, the UCAV will be powered by a "52-kilonewton dry variant" of the indigenously-developed Kaveri aerospace engine, which could not pass muster to become the power plant for the Tejas light combat aircraft.
The Kaveri engine failed to provide the higher thrust required to power Tejas throughout its flight envelope, which led India to procure American GE engines for the indigenous fighter project. But all the work done on the Kaveri engine, on which Rs 2,839 crore have been spent after it was first approved way back in 1989, will now not go waste, sources said.
Incidentally, the armed forces already have Israeli Harop 'killer' drones, which basically act as cruise missiles to first detect and then destroy specific enemy targets and radars by exploding into them in kamikaze fashion.
Moreover, some of the existing Indian fleet of Israeli Heron and Searcher-II UAVs are also being upgraded with "add-ons" to ensure they can undertake a combat mission over and above their current surveillance and precision-targeting roles, as earlier reported by TOI.
But UCAVs are far more advanced, and considered among the most potent game-changers in modern day warfare. The 'Predator' and 'Reaper' drones which are controlled from the US through satellites, for instance, have been extensively used to fire 'Hellfire' missiles against Taliban targets in the Af-Pak region.
The armed forces, on their part, are keen to further induct a wide variety of drones, ranging from hand-launched mini ones to full-fledged UCAVs. The Army, for instance, wants at least 598 mini-UAVs to ensure "battlefield transparency" and "beyond the hill surveillance" in a 10-km radius for its infantry soldiers.