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India Is Improving Its Drone Technology

February 2, 2022
HEAT Abhyas being launched. Via DRDO.

The size and technological reach of India’s aerospace sector remains underestimated even with a successful track record going on 60 years. Last December a small but very significant flight test in Odisha, along the Bay of Bengal, marked the second publicized demonstration for the Defense Research and Development Organization’s (DRDO) prototype HEAT Abhyas. Its designation is an acronym for “High-speed Expendable Air Target” and it’s meant for testing the effectiveness of air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. Once launched from its rail mount by a small booster it accelerates with its jet engine and loiters over a test range until it’s eliminated by a munition.

The flight test of the HEAT Abhyas on December 23, 2021, comes almost two months since a previous flight on October 22 when the DRDO immediately sent feelers to India’s private sector. The defense ministry wants to establish “civil-military fusion” (a concept aggressively pursued by China) by inviting local companies to become suppliers for the “defense industrial base” led by the DRDO together with a network of government factories and laboratories. In this context it makes sense why the DRDO is open about having a private sector firm take over assembly of the HEAT Abhyas.

The HEAT Abhyas may not seem too important in the greater scheme of India’s advancement in military technology. But its testing forms part of a frantic schedule where the DRDO is accelerating its separate programs for air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. When it comes to SAMs in particular the success of the Akash medium-range air defense system has inspired fresh attempts at more sophisticated missiles. Since 2019 the DRDO either began testing or continued live fire demonstrations for short, medium, and long-range SAMs in what looks like a challenge to China’s own success at mass-producing anti-aircraft systems.

From 2020 until 2021 the DRDO proved its short and medium-range SAMs were viable. First with the road mobile QRSAM that’s carried in batches of six missiles by its wheeled transporter and then with the VL-SRSAM whose munition is based on the Astra beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missile. As its acronym indicates the VL-SRSAM is meant to be loaded on its transporter in vertical cells like the Chinese-made FM-3000 or the Russian-made Tor-series. What sets the VL-SRSAM apart from its peers is the missiles could exceed them in altitude and range. But this is speculative for now.

To give India’s armed forces the maximum amount of protection versus aerial threats the DRDO introduced improved variants for its successful Akash SAM. These are the Akash-NG and the Akash-Prime and both underwent live fire tests in the latter half of 2021. The crucial improvements on the Akash-NG/Prime are in the missiles themselves. Their intended users are the army and air force who require a dependable theater-level SAM shield when the prospect of open warfare looms. Besides the VL-SRSAM, the QRSAM, the Akash-NG, and the Akash-Prime there’s another DRDO air defense project that has resisted media exposure.

For a handful of years now scant details have trickled out on the DRDO’s “XRSAM” that’s claimed will provide theater-level defenses against all aerial threats, whether these are cruise missiles or strategic bombers. But there’s no evidence to suggest the XRSAM’s appearance and layout, especially crucial details surrounding its munition, although it’s safe to assume it’s fully networked with tracking radars. There are unconfirmed figures connected with its detection range and missile range and these put the XRSAM in the same niche as the French-made SAMP/T NG and the US-made Patriot PAC-3. Considering the extent and variety of the DRDO’s air defense projects it’s no wonder an enhanced target drone like the HEAT Abhyas is being introduced and tested at a rapid clip.

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