The Indian Navy, for the first time, has successfully tested the landing and take-off of an Indian-made unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from the deck of its indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, which has achieved its full operational status and will be deployed for Milan naval wargames in February 2024.
The landing has been done at the beginning of the year but has been kept under wraps. The Indian Navy has been quietly ramping up its drone capability.
It has been exploring the designs for Landing Platform Docks (LPDs) to accommodate UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles), and uncrewed fighter jets.
The Indian Navy inducted UAVs for sea operations in the 2000s two variants of fixed-wing UAVs from Israel namely Searcher and Heron. The shore-based Naval Squadrons operated these UAVs with electro-optic cameras and COMINT (Communication Intelligence).
An innovation for the Indian Navy allowed taking over the UAV’s command at mid-sea to another designated warship after it had been launched from shore. Thereafter, warships at sea can exploit the UAVs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions and controls passed back to the land station for UAV recovery.
The landing of the quadcopter from the stable of Pune-based firm Sagar Defense Engineering successfully landed and took off from the deck of INS Vikrant. The firm’s cofounder and Managing Director, Captain Nikunj Parashar (retired), confirmed to the EurAsian Times.
The smaller UAVs launched from carriers and warships will increase the vessels’ surveillance range. They will also enhance the ship’s communication with other friendly vessels by relaying signals, especially from the dedicated naval communications satellite Rukmani. It will be a part of a large web of communications networks coordinating with other aircraft, ships, and satellites.
This comes at a time when General Atomics UAV ‘Mojave’ took off and landed on the deck of the British carrier HMS Prince of Wales off the United States East Coast. This is the largest unmanned aircraft ever launched from a British carrier.
As reported by the EurAsian Times earlier, the goal of this experimental flight is to eventually deploy drones with a UK Carrier Strike Group so they can work alongside F-35 B Lightning II jets and naval Merlin and Wildcat helicopters.
It is a mini step in the organization’s quest to augment its unmanned capability. Experts that the EurAsian Times spoke to said that this would pave the way for heavier drones to operate from Indian carriers.
“Carrier-launched drones are heavier and are more like mini-fighter jets taking off and landing on a floating deck. Such flight deck-based UAVs have advanced navigation/controls integrated with high optical day/night vision sensor capabilities. With lethal weapons onboard for an offensive role, these can engage Air to Surface (land/water) or Air to Air targets,” Commander Milind Kulshreshta (retired) told the EurAsian Times.
“Deck-launched UCAVs shall have multi-mission configuration capabilities like maritime ISR, Anti-submarine Warfare, Surface Warfare, and SAR operations on the high seas. Shortly, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the flying drone units shall make UAVs capable of Air Warfare level maneuverability, even for autonomous combat engagements, etc.,” Commander Kulshreshta said, talking about the future of drones in the Indian Navy.
INS Vikrant, besides the recently ordered French Rafale-M fighter jets, will have two UAVs on its deck. The type of it is uncertain, but the force has turned to the Indian firms for it.
Indian Navy’s Quest for Naval UAV
Last year the Indian Navy floated a Request for Information (RFI) released on June 29, 2022, seeking 40 Naval Unmanned Aerial Systems (NSUAS) for more than 100-meter-long warships.
The RFI stated that the NUAS will be used for surveillance activities, including signals intelligence (SIGINT), target acquisition, surveillance, and maritime domain awareness surrounding a naval task force.
The RFI document further added that the secondary activities would include help with search-and-rescue (SAR), anti-piracy and anti-terrorist operations.
The biggest advantage of shipborne drones is that they can be forward deployed by the navies at any given time.
The Indian Navy last year decided to induct the country’s first passenger-carrying drone, the ‘Varuna’, manufactured by Sagar Defence Engineering Private Limited. The drone has been designed in collaboration with the Navy and it can land and take off from moving warships.
The passenger drone, which can be remotely piloted or flown autonomously along predefined routes, can carry a variety of payloads between its landing gear. It can carry weights of up to 130 kg and travel 25 to 30 kilometers in half an hour. In case of malfunction, it has a ballistic parachute that can come up.
Commander Kulshreshta added: “Presently, the Indian Navy has been focussed on the Naval Shipborne Aerial System (NSAS). These deck-launched tactical UAVs (fixed wing or rotary wing) would provide the local ISR and provide the air cover to the fleet’s warships with an active participation in the Combat Air Patrol duties. The design included a transportable launch system which can be fitted/assembled when required for the launch of an air vehicle and stowed when not in use.”
The Indian Navy requires the drone manufacturers to provide two Control Stations (Main and Standby). The main control station will be fitted onboard the ship (preferably in the ops room with a rack design) and shall be powered with the onboard ship’s supply. A Standby control station must be positioned onboard to control the air vehicle for redundancy.
Last year, Larsen and Toubro signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a start-up to develop submarine-launched UAVs, which would play a crucial role in Anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Such UAVs can also assist in anti-mine operations, apart from the standard role of ISR for a submarine operating at periscope depths.
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 capabilities over time. The project called Naval Rotary UAV (NRUAV) failed due to technological difficulties.
IAI even offered to try unmanning the well-known Dhruv helicopter platform in 2011, but the Indian Navy did not take it up on the proposal.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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