DRDO Ends 2021 On High Note; Will Equip Indian Military With ‘Game-Changing’ Missiles, Drones & Precision Kill System

India conducted a spate of successful test launches of indigenous defense equipment and systems in 2021. With the possible threat of a two-front war looming, New Delhi is looking to prepare for the worst.  

The latest to join the list is an aerial expendable target called ‘Abhyas’.

From the Integrated Test Range (ITR) in Chandipur off the coast of Odisha, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) successfully flight-tested Abhyas, an indigenously produced, pilotless, high-speed expendable aerial target (HEAT).

The Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) is working on Abhyas.

This test conducted on December 23 comes just a day after DRDO tested the ‘Pralay’ surface-to-surface missile,  followed by a test of the nuclear-capable ‘Agni Prime’ ballistic missile. It also test-fired the Vertical Launch Short Range surface-to-air missile earlier this month.

The unmanned aerial vehicle, ‘Abhyas’ achieved a high subsonic speed trajectory at a very low altitude with a long endurance during the test flight. During the launch, two boosters supplied initial acceleration, and a small turbojet engine was employed to maintain a high subsonic speed with long endurance.

ADE’s Bengaluru-based industrial partner’s indigenous data link was also successfully flown and tested throughout the flight.

The operation of the system over the full flight period was validated by data acquired by the numerous range devices positioned along the shore, according to a DRDO spokesperson.

Abhyas is guided by a ground-based controller and an indigenously built micro electro mechanical system (MEMS) based inertial navigation system, which works in tandem with the flight control computer to follow a pre-determined path in completely autonomous mode. This allows the system more precision and easier maneuverability.

Earlier this month, ADE had placed an order with the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the manufacturing, assembly, integration, testing, and supply of the High-Speed Expendable Aerial Target (HEAT) System, Abhyas, as previously reported by Economic Times.

HAL stated in a statement that after this initial order is completed, it would be designated as a Development-cum-Production Partner (DcPP) for the provision of this target system with a private enterprise (50 percent of the volume).

According to HAL, the platform is expected to have a high demand from the tri-services and DRDO laboratories for missile program evaluation trials in the coming days.

The platform that was successfully test-fired off the Odisha coast was tested for the first time ever in May of 2019.

“Raksha Mantri [defense minister] Shri Rajnath Singh said the successful test is a testament to the collaboration between scientists and industry. Secretary DD R&D and Chairman DRDO praised the laboratory’s scientists, team members, and industrial partners for their successful research efforts,” according to the Defense Ministry.

The ‘Abhyas’ Aerial Target

Abhyas provides a realistic danger environment for weapon system training. The project is being developed for autonomous flying. For weapon practice, Abhyas possesses RCS, visual, and infrared augmentation systems.

Using two 68-mm boosters that are separated after the initial burnout, Abhyas can be launched from a mobile launcher. During the cruising phase, the aerial vehicle is powered by a tiny gas turbine. It has a Mach 0.5 speed and can reach altitudes of more than 5 kilometers.

File:First flight test of DRDO ABHYAS HEAT on 13 May 2019.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
High-Speed Expendable Aerial Target ‘Abhyas’ (via Wikipedia Commons)

The 75-kg drone, which has a length of 2,385 mm and a diameter of 180 mm, is anticipated to support the pilotless target aircraft Lakshya-I and Lakshya-II, which have already been recruited into the armed forces.

The vehicle has been programmed to fly on its own. A laptop-based Ground Control Station (GCS) is used to monitor and track the drone, according to the statement.

The order given to HAL for manufacturing these systems is set to give a boost to the flagship ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India) program. It is in consonance with the enhanced focus on furthering R&D as well local production of defense systems.

Indian Army On The Hunt For Precision Kill Systems 

The Indian Army has been on the lookout for better equipment for its troops for a while, with the latest in line being precision kill systems. All three services of the Indian military have signed major upgrade and acquisition deals after the conflict with China broke out last year.

The Army has now expressed its intention to buy 10 medium-range precision kill systems (MRPKS) — each with 120 loitering munitions — to help its artillery units locate, engage, hit, and destroy static and moving targets with pinpoint accuracy.

Loitering weapons are unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), often known as drones that may loiter in the air near a selected target and then strike it by self-destructing into it when instructed.

According to the Army’s Request for Information (RFI), the MPRKS weapon systems, which are also supposed to include 10 launchers and 30 forward observation stations, should be designed, developed, and manufactured in India under the Defense Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020.

This decision is in consonance with India’s renewed push towards indigenization and is reminiscent of the deal signed for Sky Striker loitering munitions that have also been decided to be built in the country.

The DAP 2020 is the sole manual guiding all capital procurements for the Indian military. The Expression of Interest (EOI) published by the Directorate General of Artillery stated that “the current and future battlefield ethos makes it imperative to acquire precision-guided munitions in order to achieve the benefit of first strike and psychological warfare against the adversary.”

The EOI also hints at the security situation and military threat that it faces from China and Pakistan. It says, “The requirement for these weapon systems is amplified due to wide spectrum of conflict ranging from sub-conventional operations to full-scale war”.

File:뭐지.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
File Image: K-9 Wikimedia Commons

It is worth noting that the Indian military had a faceoff with each of the two adversaries, in the form of post-Balakot aerial skirmishes with Pakistan and the 2020 Galwan Valley clash with the Chinese PLA that resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers. The latter led to a prolonged border standoff in eastern Ladakh.

The latest RFI states that the weapons should be able to “loiter” in the air after being launched, providing real-time imagery of the target to the ground operator. The loitering munitions carrying a warhead should be able to strike the target with precision once it is detected, minimizing collateral damage.

The RFI also states that the MRPKS should be able to attack targets with pinpoint accuracy in both day and night operations, as well as in all weather conditions.

Indian vendors who meet the EOI’s technical, commercial, and project requirements would be given a project sanction order to build a system prototype.

Eliminating Static & Moving Targets

The new kill systems, according to the RFI, will represent a huge capability upgrade for the Army’s artillery units, allowing them to detect and destroy static and moving targets across all terrains, including deserts and high altitude zones.

The systems that the Army seeks to purchase would be capable of destroying Command, Control, and Intelligence systems at headquarters, signal center, and command posts, as well as strategic and long-range vector weapon system platforms.

These requirements indicate that the Indian Army is looking for drones that could give it an absolute precision-based targeting edge over its adversaries.

The RFI further states that the systems should also be able to engage static targets such as enemy vehicles and troops, as well as radar sites such as weapon locating radar, air defense systems, and communication centers, logistics storage depots, and special ammunition storage.

The systems must have a range of 40 kilometers and also have a minimum endurance of two hours and the ability to hover in the air at a minimum height of one kilometer.

Apart from the kill systems, the need for loitering missions has been stressed upon. India has been deploying drones for Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Intelligence (IRS) operations along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China for the purpose of tracking the movement of Chinese troops and preventing any more incursions.

The Sky Striker Deal

The Indian Army also signed a deal for another set of loitering munitions called Sky Strikers in September this year. Under emergency procurement powers, the Indian army had inked a deal for over 100 explosive-laden drones, which would be produced in Bengaluru and employed as force multipliers in Balakot-style missions.

It is expected to have a range of approximately 100 kilometers. These drones can track and kill and had been extensively used by Azerbaijan against Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020.

Seth Frantzman on Twitter: "The Skystriker loitering munition; it can stay over target and wait and watch for an opportunity to strike; Elbit is a leader in UAV and electro-optic payloads; #drones
Sky Striker Loitering Munition (via Twitter)

The Indian Air Force (IAF) also operates the Israeli Harop drones and in 2019, approved the purchase of 54 more loitering munitions of this class. The Harop is an anti-radiation drone developed by Israel Aerospace Industry. It can locate radio emissions on its own. Instead of carrying a separate high-explosive warhead, the drone serves as the primary weapon. This has lent high credence to these drones.

A large fleet of Israeli-made Heron medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones has also been monitoring the LAC in the hilly terrain and relaying vital data and photographs to command and control centers.

India’s willingness to acquire precision kill systems as well as loitering munitions point to its resolve at using modern technology to counter the threat faced at the borders.