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Who Can Sell Killer Drones To The Indian Army?

March 29, 2020

The IAI Harop, one of the better known loitering UAVs, has a naval variant.

A new Request for Information (RFI) published by the Indian Army is soliciting entries from manufacturers who wish to supply at least a hundred “loiter munition systems.” The ideal model described by the RFI is man portable with a flight range of 15 kilometers and can stay airborne for half an hour. Loitering munitions are a type of short and medium endurance unmanned aircraft armed with small warheads. Sometimes described as “kamikaze drones” they have enjoyed a surge in demand for the past handful of years with militaries eager to equip soldiers with a cost-effective precision weapon.

The Indian Army’s own desired characteristics for its loitering munition describes a very portable drone that can be operated by just two soldiers. The full details are:

  1. Man portable (launched by a single person) with sensors for day/night surveillance.
  2. Have an operating range of 15 km and can detect and observe potential targets.
  3. The system should be lightweight. Being packed and carried by just two people and transportable by plane and helicopter.
  4. The system’s flight endurance must be 30 minutes.
  5. It must be operated via ground controller with a data link. The operator must have a ruggedized handheld display along with a comms system, antenna, and tripod.
  6. It should fly in all weather conditions with a maximum altitude of 4,500 meters.
  7. Its flight performance is tailored for India’s climate and geography.
  8. It weighs just 20 kilograms.
  9. The system must have anti-jamming and anti-spoofing properties.
  10. The operator/ground control stations must have the ff maps: raster, digital terrain elevation data, GIS ready in shape file format, and geo-references following IMGR.
  11. The loiter munition system should fulfill relevant EMI/EMC requirements.

Although the Indian Army is seeking just 100 loitering munitions–a small batch–their widespread adoption in the coming years puts these drones at the forefront of the army’s operations. Whether it’s battling militants in Jammu and Kashmir or the eastern border between Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, loitering munitions are the next best option if a non-line of sight missile doesn’t materialize soon. Loitering munitions aren’t even the bleeding edge of unmanned technology since other countries (such as Iran, Turkey, and Ukraine) have managed to develop homegrown models and use them in actual combat operations. Why the DRDO, with its deep technological expertise and successful track record, isn’t involved prototyping a lightweight armed drone for the army is another symptom of the disconnect between the two institutions. This RFI looks like another departure from “Make In India” that empowers foreign rather than local companies.

The lack of cooperation between the army and India’s technology sector, whether state-owned or private, is a glaring fault. An unfortunate outcome of this disconnect is the Indian Army is left deprived of so much essential equipment for its role in protecting the country. Besides an unmanned aircraft shortage for intelligence gathering purposes, a particular hurdle with grave consequences is the absence of a unified communications network linking 1.2 million jawans to their company, battalion, and regimental commands. Deep network integration is itself a necessity for embedding unmanned vehicles within the entire force structure. This gap puts the army lagging behind its near-peers in the region such as the Chinese PLA who are racing ahead with informationized warfare. Even Pakistan’s cash-strapped military, with its close relations with multiple suppliers abroad, can surmount its networked communications shortage and give itself an edge over its longstanding rival.

Manufacturers who wish to offer their products should submit their responses by April 20, 2020. The complete RFI for the “loiter munition system” can be downloaded here.

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