India has recently announced its plans to acquire 40 Naval Unmanned Aerial Systems (NUAS) for more than 100 meters long warships.
In a Request for Information (RFI) released on June 29, 2022, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) and the Indian Navy stated that the NUAS would be used for surveillance activities, including signals intelligence (SIGINT), target acquisition, surveillance, and maritime domain awareness surrounding a naval task force.
The MoD further stated in the RFI document that the secondary responsibilities would include help with Search-and-Rescue (SAR), anti-piracy, and anti-terrorist operations.
An obvious advantage of having a shipborne drone is that it could be forward-deployed by the Indian Navy at any given time.
India has increased its surveillance missions and beefed up operational deployment in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) with increased forays of the PLA Navy warships in the IOR.
The RFI has been floated more than a year after the government cleared the proposal to buy ten shipborne drones in January 2021.
“A proposal moved in fast track mode by the Indian Navy before the Defense Ministry, under which it will buy 10 Naval Shipborne Unmanned Aerial Systems for around Rs 1,300 crores, has been cleared by the government,” EurAsian Times had reported.
At the time, it was reported that the drones would be purchased through an open bid process under the “Buy Global” category, which denotes buying defense equipment from international or Indian vendors. However, the latest RFI focuses on procuring indigenously developed platforms.
The RFI states that the bidding companies will also be required to “provide indigenous software, which is used for running applications on their equipment/system in their proposal.”
This aligns with an enhanced focus on defense indigenization under the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ scheme.
Using composite materials for the airframe is one of the other requirements set forth by the MoD. A primary payload for the NSUAS should consist of an Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) system and an automatic identification system (AIS), with a minimum endurance of 10 hours.
Additionally, the aircraft must have a 20-minute reserve endurance. The NSUAS should be able to loiter at 5,000 feet while traveling at a speed of 100 km/h, according to the RFI.
Indian Navy’s Long Quest For Shipborne UAS
The Indian Navy has attempted to acquire shipborne UAS or drones over the last two decades. Several foreign players have pitched a wide range of shipborne drone systems since the mid-2000s to the Indian Navy.
In 2007, the Indian Navy even tested the popular Austrian Schiebel Camcopter off the Indian Patrol Vessel INS Sujata, but no deal could be signed.
The Indian Navy once partially funded a joint effort by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to convert the Chetak helicopter into an autonomous drone platform due to its need for the capabilities over time. The project, named naval rotary UAV (NRUAV), utterly failed due to technological difficulties.
IAI even offered to try unmanning the well-known Dhruv helicopter platform in 2011, but the Indian Navy chose not to move ahead with that proposal.
The Indian Navy currently operates Israeli-origin Heron and Searcher Mk-II UAVs, but neither is shipborne.
While speaking to EurAsian Times, Former Vice-Admiral of the Indian Navy, Shekhar Sinha, explained that “Shore-based UAV covers a much larger area over the sea for surveillance.
Ships may not have the luxury of extended surveillance in their vicinity at their chosen time. The shore-based UAV gives a general picture to shore authorities to facilitate a further localized search depending on the target’s value.
However, ships operate far and wide, are quite separated from each other, and need surveillance in a specific area in their area of operation. This can be met only if the ship has a UAV albeit for use in a much shorter radius of operation, which is why they are important.”
The veteran’s comments indicate the utility of these Unmanned Aerial Systems for micro-surveillance purposes.
India now has state-of-the-art P-8I Poseidon aircraft and Kamov Ka-31 helicopters for carrying out Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance (IRS) missions over a large swathe of the sea.
The Indian Navy has been presented with a wide range of shipborne drone systems from the middle of the 2000s, most notably the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout in 2009–2010 and the Saab Skeldar.
Although the Indian Navy appears to be leaning towards rotorcraft, Boeing has long maintained the ScanEagle as a navy shipborne opportunity.
In November 2020, it also leased two MQ-9 Sea Guardian drones from the United States for a year. Since the lease ended in November 2021, efforts have been made to acquire 30 MQ-9 drones – 10 for each service.
They are capable of conducting surveillance for around 30 hours. The efforts to ramp up these activities have been enhanced to deter China.
Deterring The Dragon
The Indian Navy has become more vigilant and is taking coordinated steps to improve its surveillance over the seas due to the Chinese expansion beyond its immediate region and into the Indian Ocean.
China gets access to the IOR through the Gwadar port in Pakistan that it is developing under the CPEC project.
Further, it has acquired Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port and thus, has a presence in India’s perceived backyard. Not just that, it also has a military base in the Indian Ocean in Djibouti.
This has led to India assuming a more active role in the Indo-Pacific region to counterbalance Beijing.
Having a more potent Maritime Domain Awareness in the immediate areas of their active interest will benefit the many task groups deployed in different parts of the giant Indo Pacific.
It would enable them to operate with more flexibility. The shipborne UAVs also allow greater independence than the land- or shore-based UAVs.According to a report by the United States,
According to a report by the United States, China has the world’s largest Navy by fleet size.
Further, its naval capability is only rising. In 2020, China’s first helicopter drone AR-500B made its maiden flight. The helicopter has been designed for wide-area maritime surveillance.
It also has a carrier-based drone, a naval variant of the CH-5 fixed-wing reconnaissance drone.
Not just that, on May 18, 2022, China debuted the Zhu Hai Yun, an unmanned ship with the ability to be remotely controlled, sail by itself on open seas, and carry several drones.
Drones were sighted on the deck of the aircraft carrier Shandong on June 1, according to Andreas Rupprecht, an expert on Chinese military aviation, EurAsian Times reported.
According to Chinese media reports, the CW-40 dual-purpose UAV was designed to conduct reconnaissance, search, and surveillance as primary operations.
These technological advances in the maritime domain and China’s growing expansionist maneuvers in the region could be the potential reason behind India’s desperation to have an unmanned shipborne system of its own.
“The Indian armed forces are, by and large, still under-equipped with remotely piloted systems despite a substantial procurement budget and thriving R&D thanks to government agencies. Despite this, the armed forces’ drone fleet is a diverse collection of foreign and local systems.
I don’t know how fast the Indian Navy will accomplish this tender, but the need for improved intelligence-gathering resources is urgent. Let me make this clear: the assembly of remotely piloted aircraft that fit the NSUAS requirements is well within reach of Indian manufacturers as among Chinese manufacturers”, Miguel Miranda, a Philippines-based military analyst, told EurAsian Times.
In a contested naval environment, it becomes imperative to keep a hawk’s eye when New Delhi is seeking the role of net security provider in the region.
Besides China, many countries with the technological capacity and money power have either developed or are developing ship and carrier-based drones.
For instance, the US is working on the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) initiative, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), to use smaller ships as mobile launch and recovery locations for MALE UAVs.
The US already has top-of-the-line shipborne drones in its fleet, including the RQ-21 Black Jack small tactical unmanned aerial system (STUAS), the MQ-8C Fire Scout, which is an enhanced version of the MQ-8B and wields a greater range and loitering time and the bigger ones like X-47B UCAV that is the size of a fighter jet and is meant for carrier operations.
The US Navy is also leading the development of aircraft carrier-borne fixed-wing drones with its MQ-25 Stingray, which first flew in September 2019. The MQ-25 is an unmanned refueling drone born out of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike program.
The solutions to the security challenges of the 21st century lie with technological advancement, and India’s quest to acquire shipborne UAS comes at an opportune moment. With the Indian Navy trying to expand its reach in the IOR beyond its neighborhood while counterbalancing China’s expansion, the unmanned systems will provide it with extra teeth.