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India’s ‘Most-Awaited’ Stealth Drone ‘Ghatak’ Breaks Cover; Fuels Speculation About Early Induction Amid China Tensions

India’s secretive combat drone project, Ghatak, seems to be on course if the latest images are anything to go by. This is a clear signal that the country, which is seen to be lagging behind China and Pakistan has given a renewed thrust to the development of military drones.

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Needless to say that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an integral part of the 21st warfare. The trend has followed throughout conflicts in this decade. However, its status as a decisive weapon of war got cemented during last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which saw drones dominating the battlefield.

Non-state actors have also begun getting their hands on UAVs. The drone strike at India’s Jammu air force station earlier this year highlights the damage and destruction terrorists could unleash with the help of UAVs. The Indian Army chief had recently asserted how grave the threat is and stressed the need to bolster India’s drone arsenal.

India's Stealthy Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Demonstrator Breaks Cover (Updated)
A screengrab of the subscale demonstrator of the Ghatak combat drone.

While the Indian armed forces have identified this core issue and made progress, the country’s indigenous efforts to make effective combat drones are still at a nascent stage. This means the Indian military will continue to depend on imported drones until the end of this decade.

The EurAsian Times had previously reported how India is at least a decade behind Pakistan and even further behind China. The “iron brothers” Pakistan and China have been closely collaborating in the development of and acquisition of various military platforms and weapons, including combat drones.

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India’s Ghatak Drone

A subscale demonstrator for India’s secretive Ghatak stealth drone was spotted recently during a trial. A video and images of the demonstrator called Stealth Wing Flying Testbed (SWiFT) have recently surfaced.

The Ghatak drone is being developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), but its details remain highly classified. The Ghatak project has gained flagship status this year.

The federal government is reportedly putting its weight behind the project and is likely to include a deck-based UCAV variant for the Indian Navy as well. A full-scale prototype is likely to be rolled out between 2024 and 2025.

The video indicated that taxi trials of the SWiFT were held at the Chitradurga Aeronautical Test Range in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, sometime in mid-August this year. Neither the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) nor DRDO has issued any statement on this development.

Earlier this year, the Indian Army had successfully demonstrated a swarm of 75 UCAVs which automatically identified targets and eliminated them in a kamikaze-style attack during a live demonstration held during Army Day 2021. This development was a step towards India’s 1,000 swarm drone goal.

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Global military watchers lauded this development but pointed out that it was a demonstration and not an operational feat. New Delhi has also expanded its HAROP fleet and is reportedly operating 164 of these Israeli kamikaze drones.

However, despite these developments’ analysts believe India is lagging behind in terms of indigenously developed UCAVs. None of its proposed domestic combat drone projects like the Rustom 2 or Ghatak are currently operational. On the other hand, Pakistan inducted its homegrown Burraq combat drone almost a decade ago.

India’s Ghatak Drone vs China, Pakistan  

India is eternally into flight tests for mid and large UAVs while countries like Turkey and China have deployed ones. Chinese UAVs do not have a good testimonial while operating in foreign countries but have taken the route of development and deployment even if they are not hi-tech,” author and defense analyst Joseph P Chacko told the EurAsian Times.

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China has followed the predictable pattern of buying or stealing technologies from other countries. Pakistan too has deployed UAVs, mostly imported designs. India operates imported UAVs from Israel and the US in limited quantities,” Chacko said.

India does have a thriving aerospace sector and unmanned aircraft continues to be its most exciting prospect even if the adoption of locally developed systems has been slow or non-existent.

“However, as relations with China deteriorate and the armed forces have to stay on a war footing in flashpoints such as Arunachal Pradesh & Ladakh, the arrival of new UAVs like Ghatak could not come sooner.

There used to be a consensus that Chinese unmanned systems and other automated technology were lagging behind those in use with the US military—this is false. There’s also an emerging trend where the Chinese military is pivoting to stealthier long-range UCAVs with infallible large-scale networking. This means the Chinese UCAV fleet, in particular, can grow to sizes surpassing the ‘legacy’ air force inventory.

“In terms of innovations, production volume, and variety China is a world leader. In fact, judging by the recent Air Show China 2021, there’s an oversupply of military drones coming from the Chinese aerospace and high-tech sector. The advent of loitering munitions and other weaponry for unmanned aircraft is overflowing at the moment—again, thanks to Chinese productivity.

“India has unrestricted access to engines supplied by foreign partners (Russia, for example) and can choose locally made heavy or multi-fuel engines too. There’s certainly no dearth of engineers and funding to accelerate unmanned aircraft development in India,” Miranda opined.

Pakistan's Burraq drone
Pakistan’s Burraq drone. (Wikipedia)

The Filipino analyst went on to chronicle UAV/UCAV developments in China, India, and Pakistan.

China could now be a world leader in drone technology if the idea of production volume is the critical metric. The PLA, PLAAF, and PLAN have a steep learning curve ahead just to integrate the drones they’ve added to their respective inventories. There’s a very high risk of Chinese-made stealth drones imposing information and situational dominance over the line of actual control (LAC).

China's CH-6 UCAV
China’s CH-6 UCAV at the Zhuhai Airshow 2021. (via Twitter)

“Pakistan has developed an entire generation of UAVs/UCAVs for its military and government agencies. They range from small rotorcraft to hand-launched surveillance drones to long endurance models such as the Shahpar II. There are persistent rumors that Pakistan’s state-owned aerospace manufacturer has not one, but two UCAVs under development.

“India is constantly on the verge of breaking out of its rut and introducing world-class unmanned systems of its own. The TAPAS BH201 looks very promising. But the near-permanent limbo that the DRDO’s efforts in remotely piloted aircraft suffer is a significant hurdle no matter if private sector partners are ready to join in.

In the meantime, the Indian military seems to prefer long-term reliance on expensive drones supplied by Israel and, apparently soon, the USA. It doesn’t need to be this way, but this is how things stand at the moment,” Miranda added.