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Ghatak Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV)

Ghatak [Hindi-language = Lethal or Dangerous] is a fully funded and sanctioned national defence project for an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV). Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) was a tentative name for an Indian UCAV project, but was eventually called the Ghatak UCAV. In 2007 the public learned about the AURA program for an autonomous unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), being developed by the DRDO for the Indian Air Force. The task of designing had been entrusted to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA).

Ground tests of Ghatak UCAV were reported in January 2020, with first flight expected in 2022. Other sources report the first flight of Ghatak UCAV will be in 2025-26. Reports that it achieved first flight in June 2020 seeminly reference the subscale SWIFT test article. As of late 2020, the precise status of this program was a bit hazy, complicated by Indian journalistic practices which at times fail to clearly distinguish between images that are representative of the generic UCAV taxa, and specific Indian projects. And as cinema connoisseurs might attest, large scale flying models can convincingly replicate full scale aircraft.

Ghatak will likely see large-scale private sector participation going forward, given its many linkages with India’s AMCA fifth generation stealth fighter program. In the mid as well as the long term, UAVs with on board multiple sensors like SAR, long range electro-optical (LREO) sensors, ELINT, COMINT, EW, communication repeaters, GPS, pod of IRLS and laser designators for targeting, etc would be required. The development of an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) would be the next logical step towards minimizing sensor to shooter time with both the sensor and the shooter being on the same platform.

The design work on the UCAV is to be carried out by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). The UCAV will be capable of releasing missiles, bombs and precision-guided munitions. The programme is in its project definition stage. The design is in line with what former DRDO chief controller for Aeronautics said in 2007, that India's combat drone would be a stealthy flying-wing concept aircraft with internal weapons bay and a turbofan engine.

Details of the project are classified. The program apparently suffered a setback in 2015. The Kaveri engine project was abandoned in 2014 as it did not meet the power requirements of the Air Force. Poor performance at high altitude, inadequate thrust, excessive weight and a mysterious sound — these are some issues that often find mention in the list of problems that stalled the Kaveri jet engine project. The Kaveri engine has been undergoing tests in Russia since the 1990s. In 2004, a high altitude testing of the Kaveri engine was conducted in Russia, and the test had ended in a failure. By 2008, the Kaveri engine had been sent to Russia twice already to undergo high-altitude tests for which India has no facility.

In November 2014, the DRDO decided to abandon the Kaveri engine programme due to its shortcomings. The revival of the project was first reported by the Indian media in July 2016 when it suggested that France had offered to invest EUR 1 billion to revive the Indian combat jet engine project. The proposal included joint plan that could see the Kaveri engine powering Tejas by 2020.

The Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft was a feasibility study started in 2009 with a budget of ?12.5 crore (equivalent to ?23 crore or US$3.3 million in 2018) and successfully completed in April 2013. Initial funding of ?231 crore (equivalent to ?248 crore or US$35 million in 2018) for the project was sanctioned by the Government of India in May 2016.

The presence of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), when introduced as part of a well-conceived force mix, will provide the required staying power to ensure persistence, and in the long term may also prove to be cost-effective as opposed to a fully inhabited force achieving the same effect. These UAVs will have to be both armed and unarmed versions used for a number of different roles contributing centrally to the dominance of the battle space.

The IAF will continue to be dominated by manned platforms in the near future. Import of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) will not be possible due to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) restrictions. Therefore, while the current focus is on acquiring manned platforms with cutting-edge technology, necessary R&D needs to be undertaken to develop armed UAVs in the near future and UCAVs in the longer run.

The April 2013 “Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap” of Indian Armed Forces reported that " Ministry on Defence reported to Lok Sabha on 09 March 2017 that "Subsequent to the deployment of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ with General Electric (GE) engines, DRDO decided to power an Indian Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) ‘Ghatak’ with Kaveri ‘dry’ engine (without afterburner system) at an estimated cost of Rs. 2652 crore and PDC of 84 months from project sanction. Accordingly, DRDO submitted a project proposal. The Hon’bleRakshaMantri and Ministry of Finance approved the proposal. The same was submitted to the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), prior to consideration of Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS)."

"The Office of Prime Minister (PMO) constituted an Independent Committee, consisting of Dr. R. Chidambaram (Principal Scientific Advisor), Dr. V. K. Saraswat (Member, NITI Ayog) and Dr. K. Radhakrishnan (Former Secretary, Department of Space) to review the project proposal on the feasibility and desirability of the Ghatak aircraft and engine programmes. The Report of this Committee has been submitted to the PMO for approval prior to submission to CCS. The Committee recommended ‘in-principle’ approval of UCAV ‘Ghatak’ development programme and immediate sanction of Ghatak (Kaveri ‘dry’) engine project with PDC of 84 months from sanction at a project cost of Rs.2652 crore. "This project proposal contains two segments, the first segment being the development of Kaveri engine flight demonstration with Flying Test Bed (FTB) trials in IL-76 aircraft and the second segment for the development of Kaveri ‘dry’ engine for powering UCAV ‘Ghatak’. In order to meet this challenging task of aero engine development, DRDO has proposed to seek assistance from world’s reputed engine houses for joint development."

State run military complexes like DRDO, HAL and NAL have been constantly underperforming for long. Indigenous defence projects like Tejas and Arjun MBT have taken decades to complete and have burned a big hole into government’s pocket. Also, due to technological limitations caused by the sanctions after Pokhran tests, often, India ends up spending more to acquire components from other countries than building them up.

This put India into many major embarrassments in the past. GTRE’s Kaveri engine took 20 years to build, failed in high altitude tests and was ultimately cancelled. The project alone coste Rs. 200 crores with little benefit. In the end, India ended up buying engine from Russia. Recently, China has made strategic advancements in defence manufacturing sector by mass-producing drones, which have been offered to and bought by Pakistan. By March 2017 India had yet to start an UCAV program. In February 2018 it was reported "Top sources associated with the project have confirmed to Livefist that by the end of this year, a prototype SWiFT will be fitted with a Russian NPO Saturn 36MT turbofan engine (which currently powers the Nirbhay cruise missile) and launched on its first flight during the 2018-19 financial year.... While the SWiFT gets set for a first flight in a year, the bigger Ghatak is still a way off, with a first flight near impossible before 2024-25."

On 08 August 2018 the Minister of Defence was asked by Lok Sabha member Elumalai Vallaigounder "whether the Ghatak project of stealth combat drones with initial Rs.2650 crore is years away from completion... whether the Government has now fixed any target to complete the said project..." The respons to the Lok Sabha question was "At present, there is no project sanction for the development of GHATAK Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV)."

A never-before seen model of India’s GHATAK stealth flying wing combat drone has broken cover in a September 2020 video by the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT-Kanpur), the principal academic institution conducting fundamental research on the program. In February 2018, Livefist had detailed IIT-K’s involvement in the Ghatak program, which you can read in full here — it remains the most detailed report so far on a program first uncovered by Livefist a decade earlier. The new scale model made its appearance sitting in the background in a video of an IIT-K lecture on UAV aerodynamics.

SWiFT, short for stealth wing flying testbed, the aircraft is a technology demonstrator being designed and built in collaboration with the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), a government military laboratory in Bengaluru. As of 2018 it was planted that a prototype SWiFT will be fitted with a Russian NPO Saturn 36MT turbofan engine (which currently powers the Nirbhay cruise missile) and launched on its first flight during the 2018-19 financial year.

The bigger Ghatak was still a way off, with a first flight near impossible before 2024-25. The Ghatak began as Project AURA ( Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft). The working title of the drone aircraft itself was Indian Unmanned Strike Aircraft Programme (IUSAP) - a pilotless bomber. The Aura UCAV was a lambda wing type configuration under development by the Indian Air Force and India’s DRDO, initially expected to become operational by 2023.

DRDO displayed for the first time on January 4, 2020 a scale model of India’s first stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) dubbed as Ghatak (Deadly) at ongoing five days mega science expo as part of 107th Indian Science congress inaugurated at the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bengaluru.

A remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) is an older term for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). UCAV means “Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle”, and is also sometimes defined as an “Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicle.” UCAV is a UAV that is intended for use in combat. UAS means “Unmanned Aerial System.” UCAS means “Unmanned Combat Air System.” ROA means “Remotely Operated Aircraft.” The characteristics all these vehicles have in common is that there is no human pilot onboard and although they may be operated autonomously they can also be controlled by a remotely located operator or pilot. The term UAV is used as a generic term for such vehicles. It is important when flying a UAV in an airspace shared with other aircraft, both civilian and military, that collisions during all phases of flight (including taking off and landing) not happen.

The ever changing battlefield environment, as well as the emergence of global command and control architectures currently used by armed forces around the globe, requires the use of robust and adaptive technologies integrated into a reliable platform. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) aim to integrate such advanced technologies while also increasing the tactical capabilities of combat aircraft. Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVS) are starting to be used by militaries for increasing the effectiveness and survivability of manned aircraft while lowering the overall cost of combat operations. UCAVs are projected to cost up to 50% less than traditional fighter aircraft and up to 50% less to operate and maintain. UCAVs include stealth technologies and carry precision-guided weapons, such as joint direct attack munition (JDAM) or small diameter bombs for performing suppression of enemy air defense missions.

The UCAVs will preferably be preprogrammed to operate autonomously while being monitored by remote controllers located away from the battle zone. Mission parameters for UCAVs can be revised on route, either autonomously by the UCAVs or by the controllers. The UCAVs mission is complete upon payload delivery or expiration of fuel load whichever comes first. However, because of the fuel limitation, UCAVs cannot stay on station as long as desired. Some manned aircraft have the ability to refuel in flight, thereby extending their range and time on station.

A low radar signature, which is the equivalent of a low probability of the aerial vehicle's being detected by radar, can be implemented or at least enhanced, for example, by energy-absorbing paints, energy-diverting seals for the outer-skin joints, fewer and larger hinged flaps for maintenance instead of many small ones, accommodating loads within interior shafts instead of having exterior loads. Ninety percent of the improvement, i.e., the reduction in the radar signature of an aerial vehicle, currently occurs by improving the geometry of the aerial vehicle. This can be effected, for example, by reducing edge reflections whereby the edges are, for example, parallelized.

The strategic long range bomber "Northrop B-2 Spirit" as well as the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) "Boeing X-45" and "Northrop Grumman X-47 Pegasus" commonly include two special features in connection with one another, namely on the one hand a more or less "minimalist" design of a fuselage and wing body (corresponding to the so-called flying-wing aircraft principle) and on the other hand a low radar signature. A low radar signature, equivalent to a low likelihood of a discovery of the aircraft by means of radar, can be achieved or promoted, e.g., by energy-absorbing paint coats, energy-conducting seals of outer skin joints, fewer and larger instead of many small service flaps, accommodation of loads in interior ducts instead of as exterior loads and further measures.

In particular, an aircraft that is to have only an extremely low radar signature must have a very simple exterior geometry with an avoidance or targeted alignment of body surfaces and body edges. Unfavorably arranged surfaces such as, e.g., vertically aligned vertical tail plane surfaces cause so much radar backscatter that an extremely low signature can no longer be achieved. For this reason with respect to a low radar signature an overwhelming advantage results with a design of the fuselage and wing body that follows at least approximately the flying-wing aircraft principle and thus does not have a particularly marked fuselage or a flowing transition between fuselage and wings.

A basic geometry that is particularly favorable in terms of signature appears to be a simple delta configuration with a certain trailing edge sweep, which does not have a marked fuselage and as far as possible should be developable. Although a trailing edge with points can also be considered, such as e.g., with a body with wings in so-called lambda configuration, a certain deterioration with respect to the radar signature results with a lambda configuration of this type. To achieve an extremely low radar signature therefore a simple delta configuration is a much better solution.

Some believe that India does not have a pressing need for armed drones as the country is not fighting any adversary in permissive airspace: the Indian Air Force primarily wants to keep an eye on the movement near the border with China and Pakistan while operating its drones from Indian Air Space. "My understanding is that India does not have a pressing need for armed drones, which are optimized for operations in permissive airspace. India is not fighting any adversary in permissive airspace. Both Chinese and Pakistan airspace is heavily contested. The IAF's interest in the MQ-9B and the Indian Navy's interest in the Heron TP stem from their excellent surveillance capabilities. The IAF wants to look deep into China and Pakistan while operating within the safety of Indian airspace," Vijainder K Thakur, former squadron leader of Indian Air Force said in October 2017.

Addressing the media on Air Force Day in the first week of October 2020, Indian Air Force Chief R.K.S. Bhadauria emphasised that drones are an important part for surveillance and intelligence gathering. “However, once the conflict starts, they do become susceptible to enemy action, which is a known fact”, the air chief marshal added. “There will always be limitations when drones are used to attack in the way they have been used in this (Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict). Some will fall to enemy action and a percentage will succeed. One should have a combination of such assets…(but) we cannot plan to win a war with just these”, the air chief said.

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Page last modified: 30-01-2021 14:00:02 ZULU