Israel’s Heron TP multi-role drone: Adding teeth to India’s defence capabilities

The Indian Army has reportedly received deliveries of 2 of the 4 new Heron TP drones from Israel earlier this year which were earlier bought under emergency powers delegated to it in 2020 from deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

According to the News18 report, the new drones were received in March and were subsequently deployed in eastern Ladakh for surveillance and reconnaissance missions amid the military standoff with China. The other two drones will be deployed along the LAC in the Northeast when they are delivered; sources told the News18. To understand the significance of Heron TP Drones and how UAVs will act as a crucial means to tackle the cross-border threat, The Quotes talked to Mr. Girish Linganna, Aerospace & Defence analyst & Director ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd at length. Excerpts of the conversation. 

The Indian Army reportedly received deliveries of two of the four new Heron TP drones from Israel earlier this year which were bought under emergency powers delegated to it in 2020 for deployment along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Kindly help our readers understand the significance of Heron TP drones and shed some light on their capabilities, which have been deployed explicitly at LAC.

Developed by the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the Heron TP,  also known as IAI Eitan is a multi-role, long-range Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial system (UAS). Although a UAS, it boasts of formidable specifications. With an operational duration of about 30 hours and a range of about 1000 KM at 45,000 feet altitudes, it can be a vital eye in the sky. It can fly to an altitude of 45,000 feet above commercial traffic. Furthermore, this technological marvel is also all-weather capable. Across the LAC, the Indian troops have traditionally held vantage points over the valleys to monitor the Chinese movement easily.

However, the recent border clashes have exposed specific chinks. The uniqueness of a UAS with the Army over a coordinated Air Force and Army operation means that, the Army can etch out more elaborate use cases with faster implementation. Additionally, the cost of operating a fighter aircraft can range from about USD 4000 to even USD 40,000 per hour.

The Heron TP drones currently procured have reportedly been the non-weaponized variant which the government may plan to weapon indigenously. So, the Heron TP drone is a long-term platform for the Indian defence forces. It offers excellent capacity for payloads, and being multi-role, it can adopt configuration changes to shift from an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) drone to an offensive one.

The government of India has expressed its plans to upgrade all Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones with advanced satellite communication and sensors for longer surveillance and reconnaissance missions and also arm them with air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided munitions for precision strikes under a new project called Project Cheetah. Your take on it!

Project Cheetah has been the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) attempt at upgrading the existing fleet of UAS with the three services. Along with enhanced satellite communication, the IAF will upgrade ISR capabilities and rely on the Indian defence industry to weaponize drones. As Heron TP is a great platform, it will provide India with deep striking capabilities.

A weaponized drone can remotely assume the duties that the IAF performed during the Balakot airstrike. This fact of the drone eliminates the factors which puts our pilots in danger as well as in the event of a crash behind enemy lines, reduce the financial cost incurred. Recently, the US conducted an airstrike to eliminate the Al-Qaeda leader, Zawahiri, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The current government has taken the hard line against terrorists and adversarial states. So, the government recognizes the value proposition of a substantial fleet of modern UAS. 

India has been focusing on the procurement of a range of advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) within the three services in the last two years. Kindly shed some light on the significance of UAVs / Drones in nullifying cross-border threats.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have developed various UAVs to equip future forces. However, India finds itself in a state of heightened threats to its national security. At this time, prioritizing national sovereignty has urged the three forces to acquire drones. India could have acquired either the Israeli Heron TP or the American Predator drones. The Predator drone does offer greater payload capacity. However, reportedly HAL is keen to manufacture the Heron TP drones in India, which could have tipped the deal in favour of the Israelis.

Drones offer exceptional, round-the-clock operability and ad hoc mission availability for specific purposes. With the automatic taxi take-off and landing and satellite communication of the Heron TP, the operations of the drone can be remotely monitored from a central command. They can be deployed in tandem to ensure 24/7 coverage. Such nuanced surveillance of troop movement, activity, etc., was earlier backed by satellites. Remember, in the Kargil war, India had to purchase satellite images to survey Pakistani positions.

While India boasts of a formidable space program today, drones offer advantages over satellite coverage. It can be deployed readily as a response to development. Further, a weaponized drone enables on-the-fly strikes. So, the three services can function with greater autonomy to strengthened by intel collected and communicated through the UAVs; clubbed with striking capability, drones are a competent proposition. Security, generally, is not about prevention. It is about minimizing. The next attack is bound to happen. With the strengthening of the forces, the likelihood is minimized, along with the ease and the damage potential. And drones further bolster the defences.

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