Maritime ISTAR: The Indian Navy to acquire Shipborne UAVs

The Indian Navy (IN) is looking to acquire shipborne Medium/High Altitude Long Range Unmanned Aerial Systems (MALE/HALE, UAS) for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR).

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The Indian Navy (IN) is looking to acquire shipborne Medium/High Altitude Long Range Unmanned Aerial Systems (MALE/HALE, UAS) for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR). The UAV is planned to be outfitted with maritime radar, satellite communication (SATCOM), Electronic Support Measure (ESM) payloads and electronic/communications intelligence (ELINT/COMINT). This requirement is a consequence of the prior orientation towards the acquisition of shore-based UAS, which is intended to ensure that maritime ISTAR and related duties are carried out effectively.

Platforms for Maritime UAVs Based on the Shore

The Heron and Searcher Mk.II unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are operated by the three squadrons that make up the IN’s shore-based UAS capacity and are operated from Kochi (Kerala), Porbandar (Gujarat), and Uchipuli (Tamil Nadu).

In November 2020, the Indian Navy began operating two MQ-9B (HALE) SeaGuardians on a one-year lease from the United States to meet a portion of the unending demand for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). These UAS systems are now being flown from Naval Air Station (NAS) Rajali (Tamil Nadu), with an extended lease duration. The leasing of the Sea Guardians was viewed as a forerunner to the projected acquisition of ten MQ-9B Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) for each of the three Services (30 in total) at an estimated cost of $3 billion. According to a statement by the Chief of Naval Staff in December 2022, the assessment of this matter will continue, even though there would be a “potential rationalisation of numbers involved.” 

Despite the leasing or acquisition of such shore-based HALE UAVs, more than the number of these land-based UCAVs would be needed to meet the IN’s larger requirements for responsive or urgent ISTAR needs inside the area of interest of a Naval Fleet or Task Force. Considering that the IN is needed to ensure marine security along the eastern and western seaboards and fulfil its responsibilities as a critical component of security in the Indian Ocean Region, this is of particular importance. Only shipborne UAVs can achieve such responsiveness.

IN Acquisition Efforts for Maritime UAS

The IN has traditionally utilised tiny shipborne Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) as aerial targets, despite their lack of ISTAR capabilities. In October 2007, the Indian Navy evaluated the Austrian Schiebel S-100 rotary-wing camcopter aboard the offshore patrol vessel INS Sujata. However, no further acquisition development was observed.

In February 2015, the IN published a global Request for Information (RFI) for the acquisition of 50 NSUAS for MDA, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, and search-and-rescue operations (SR). The RFI said that such NSUAS must be able to operate from surface ships as small as 50 metres in length, which would include some missile boats. Therefore, such NSUAS (or a component thereof) may need to be small or hand-launched. This RFI did not, however, result in any acquisitions.

The increased demand for responsive shipborne UAS capabilities, therefore, required drafting a second RFI to meet the IN’s needs of NSUAS.

RFI 2022

In light of those mentioned above, the IN published a new RFI for NSUAS on 28 June 2022, requesting the acquisition of 40 NSUAS to fulfil the tasks indicated in the previous RFI. The NSUAS are to be sourced under the Buy (Indian-IDDM) or Buy (Indian) or Make categories of the DAP (Defence Acquisition Procedure) 2020, ensuring a high level of indigenous content in line to foster self-reliance in the defence industry. Other key RFI components are given below.

NSUAS must be capable of operating from ship or land throughout the day or night and in conditions of low visibility. It should feature autonomous or manual flight modes or a combination of the two and a “return home” option. The UAS should be Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL)/Automatic Take-off and Landing (ATOL) capable and operable from all ships of length higher than 100m (for operation from corvettes to aircraft carriers of the IN) and beaches and unprepared littoral surfaces. The NSUAS system should be tropicalised for maritime use within a -20 to +55 degree Celsius temperature range. It should be able to launch and recover in winds up to 15 knots when GPS is unavailable ( 25 feet per second). The UAV must be able to float to be recovered in the water.

The UAS and its payloads are to be modular, compatible inside the IN, and easy to disassemble and repair at sea, decreasing the logistical burden and enabling more time on-station. Duplicating each system, including UAS, Control Stations, and Ship Data Terminals/Remote Video Terminals, would increase operating flexibility and redundancy. The UAS should be equipped with an encrypted primary and secondary data link.

To minimise the risk of detection at sea, the UAV should be manufactured from composite materials and have a low radar/acoustic signature. Maritime Patrol Radar (MPR), surveillance (Electro-optical EO and Infra-Red IR), communication relay equipment, ELINT/ COMINT, Automatic Identification System – Identification Friend or Foe (AIS- IFF), and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS B)- that provides real-time precision and shared situational awareness to pilots and air traffic controllers) payloads should accompany each system. The MPR should be able to detect and track small, medium, and large objects with a Radar Cross-Section (RCS) of 0.1/1/10 m2 in day and night and light rain. The day camera or thermal imager (TI) should be able to detect up to 20 kilometres during the day/night.

The baseline endurance with the basic payload (EO/IR and AIS) should be 10 hours, with a maximum operating altitude of 1524 metres above the surface and a range of 100 kilometres. The UAS should be able to operate for a minimum of 100 hours per month throughout the full year and 16 hours per day/300 hours per month for at least two months.


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