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Manned, Unmanned Competition in Aero-India 2023


Future operations are expected to be undertaken with manned-unmanned teaming particularly in the aerospace domain.

With Artificial Intelligence supported unmanned aerial systems competing with manned combat fighters the aerial battlefield of the future may assume a complexity that appears to be difficult to imagine realistically for now.

But the stage is set with unmanned aerial vehicles competing and possibly in terms of eyeballs and footfalls beating the combat fighters on display in the Aero India 2023.

Of course there is nothing that can steal the show from aerobatics of teams that are expected to fly in Bengaluru and thrill the audience but all eyes will also be on UAVs.

The interest in drones which accelerated with the success achieved by Azerbaijan in the short war with Armenia in 2020. The War in Ukraine has remained very much a drone war in the aerial spectrum with sparse use of manned combat fighters for reasons that are still being deciphered.

Iran supplied terminal effect self destruting drones saw Ukraine forced to employ a surfeit of air defence guns and missiles to bring down what is claimed to be 70 to 90 percent of these autonomous flying machines. Yet there were many lessons to be learnt for militaries across the World.

Not to be left behind the Indian Armed Forces have also upscaled plans for induction of UAVs and Aero India is expected to see a surfeit of these systems competing for the eyeballs of the discerning in the uniform.

The indigenous research agency, Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) has already declared that there would be a number of flagship products including the Tapas UAV which will also be in the flight display.

The Tapas-BH which is an acronym for tactical aerial platform for advanced surveillance-beyond horizon is developed by the DRDO and has flown 180 test flights which will be on display as well as on flight during Aero-India at Bengaluru.

AS per the DRDO website, “ TAPAS-BH is a MALE UAV with an operating altitude of 30000 ft, endurance of 24 hrs with EO & SAR payloads and a range of 250 kms. It can carry a variety of payloads up to a maximum of 350 kgs.

Its mission requirements are to provide continuous wide area coverage and yet be able to identify small targets. Rustom-II is comparable in the same class such as IAI’s HERON says the DRDO.

Tapas was earlier named as Rustom-2, has a maximum speed of 225 kmph with a 20.6-metre wing span and command range” of 1,000-km with satellite-based communication as per the Times of India.

Meanwhile the Natinoal Technical Research Organisation or NTRO is expected to acquire eight indigenous medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The armed drone called Archer-NG (next generation), which can carry 300 kg of weapons including smart anti-airfield weapons (SAAWs) and anti-tank guided missiles is also expected to be on display.

Interestingly India is said to be keen on procuring 18 Predator MQ 9A drones from the US with approvals said to be as early as in April this year.

The scheme for induction of these dividing the same equally between the three services indicates that the overall plan for employment has not been evolved.

The resource if acquired will be of strategic use and deploying it in penny packets with the services may well lead to dissipation of effectiveness through division. But then the mandarins in Integrated HQs of the Ministry of Defence seem to know better.

On the other end of the spectrum the Army now seems to want 850 nano drones for special operations with a request for proposal (RFP) for 'emergency procurement’ of the nano drones issued, Times of India reports that the acquisition process for kamikaze drones, armed drone swarms, logistics drones and surveillance quadcopters has been launched.

Times of India also reported that the Indian Army will be going in for indigenous procurement of 80 mini remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), 10 runway independent RPAS, 44 upgraded long-range surveillance systems and 106 inertial navigation systems to better direct long range and high-volume firepower at enemy targets for artillery regiments.

The Army also wants to buy 12 sets of autonomous surveillance and armed drone swarms (A-SADS), each with 50-75 artificial intelligence-enabled aerial vehicles for self direction. Times of India has even given the breakdown with seven for high-altitude areas with China, five drone swarms for operations in desert and plains bordering Pakistan.

Well if all these systems desired come up for display at Aero India, manned aerial systems may for the first time be feeling the competition.


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