Warplanes: India Has The UAV Blues


January 3, 2016: India has long had problems developing its own military weapons and equipment using government run organizations. The chief culprit here is the DRDO (India's Defense Research and Development Organization) and its latest failure is the Nishant UAV developed (since 1988) for the army. Four were eventually delivered to the army in 2011 and by late 2015 them last of them had crashed. DRDO blames army personnel for losing two of them but the army says all four were lost because Nishant was unreliable and difficult to operate. The soldiers have precedent on their side. After several attempts Nishant was finally certified as ready for service in 2011. Nishant made its first flight in 2005. Over a dozen were produced, most for development and most of those were lost to accidents as well.

Nishant is a 375 kg (825 pound) aircraft with a cruising speed of 140 kilometers an hour, max range of 160 kilometers and payload of 45 kg (99 pounds). Endurance is 4.5 hours and it is launched via a truck mounted catapult and landed via a parachute. Max altitude is 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). The Indian army paid about $4.5 million for each of the Nishants they bought. They don’t want any more of them.

In contrast the American RQ-7B Shadow 200 UAVs have flown about a million hours since they were introduced in 2002, mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Development of the Shadow 200 began in 1991. Each 159 kg (350 pound) RQ-7B costs $500,000 and the current version can stay in the air six hours per sortie. A day camera and night vision camera is carried on each aircraft. Able to fly as high as 4,800 meters (15,000 feet) or more, the Shadow can thus go into hostile territory and stay high enough (over 3,200 meters/10,000 feet) to be safe from hostile rifle and machine-gun fire. The Shadow UAV can carry 25.5 kg (56 pounds) of equipment, is 3.6 meters (eleven feet) long and has a wingspan of 4.1 meters (12.75 feet). The Shadow has a range of about 50 kilometers. The army has had great success with the RQ-7B. The army still operates about 400 RQ-7s and about 500 were built.

Nishant was not the first failed UAV program for DRDO. In 2008 Indian Air Force received three PTA (Pilotless Target Aircraft) UAVs. PTA had been in development for 27 years, and consumed over $36 million. The air force quickly found PTA unable to perform as promised. Some of the major deficiencies were inability to operate at the promised 8,600 meter (28,000 foot) altitude. The PTA was barely able to reach 7,200 meters (20,000 feet.) Worse, the PTA could only survive about five landings, not the ten they are supposed to be able to handle. The PTA's usually tow targets for anti-aircraft gunners, but also are used (once, of course) as targets for air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles. The biggest problem appears to be with the engine, which has not been able to deliver the promised power and reliability. The Indian Air Force is refusing to accept any more PTAs until the problems are fixed. DRDO made improvements had delivered PTAs to the navy and army and now plans to export it.

DRDO is a network of 51 weapons and technology laboratories, employing over 30,000 people (20 percent of them scientists and engineers.) DRDO has been screwing up weapons development programs for half a century. Efforts to shape up DRDO have consistently failed. It's all about politics (DRDO provides jobs for well-connected people) and nationalism (India wants to produce its own high tech weapons.) DRDO has failed in most all areas (small arms, tanks, missiles and warplanes). The failures have grown over the years, and created louder calls for reforms.

DRDO has had some successes, which it publicizes as energetically as it can. It tries to play down the failures, or simply tout them as partial successes. But compared to defense industries in other nations, DRDO is an underperformer, and highly resistant to reform.

Meanwhile the Indian military has been importing affordable and reliable UAVs from Israel. In 2006 India formed its first UAV maritime reconnaissance squadron (the 342nd). The unit has eight Israeli Searcher II UAVs and four Israeli Herons. The Searcher II san stay aloft for 16 hours at a time, and is built to operate for 2,000 hours before a major system failure. The Heron is similar to the U.S. Predator, and can stay up for fifty hours at a time. The radar and vidcam sensors enable the UAVs to provide unprecedented coverage on short notice. Israel is also using a version of the Heron for maritime reconnaissance. Israel has been the leader in UAV technology since the 1980s and began supplying India with UAVs in 2003.




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