The Indian Navy plans to acquire a sizeable number of unmanned aerial and underwater platforms in the next few years to significantly ramp up its surveillance capability in the backdrop of China's increasing forays into the Indian Ocean region, people familiar with the development said on Sunday.
The acquisition will be made as part of a roadmap on unmanned platforms, which was finalised at a conference of the top naval commanders last month that had extensively deliberated on the need to procure new-age platforms, they said.
"The roadmap delves into the requirement of unmanned platforms and provides a direction to meet the demand while ensuring the optimum utilisation of the resources," said one of the people cited above. Though the Navy will primarily focus on acquiring the unmanned platforms from within the country, it will also look at the best available drones and other related systems in the global market.
"The key focus will be to boost the surveillance in the strategically key waterways, in sync with developments in the Indian Ocean region," said a secod person. The people said the key focus has been to enhance the capabilities in the areas of long-range anti-submarine warfare (ASW), surveillance and reconnaissance.
In sync with the roadmap for unmanned platforms, the third aircraft carrier is set to be designed to accommodate both fighter jets and a fleet of drones, they said. Indian armed forces have been focussing on procuring unmanned platforms, including armed drones, following the eastern Ladakh standoff with China and a drone strike on the Jammu airbase.
Explosives-laden drones were used to carry out the attack on the Jammu Air Force station in June in the first such instance of suspected Pakistan-based terrorists deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to strike at vital military installations in India. The people cited above said the Indian Navy is also pushing for the procurement of 30 multi-mission armed Predator drones from the US, which will cost over USD 3 billion (around Rs 22,000 crore).
They said the government is likely to clear the deal by March next year. A proposal to acquire the MQ-9B long-endurance drones, armed with air-to-ground missiles, is likely to be cleared by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) by next month.
Various key aspects of the procurement, including the cost component and the weapons package, have already been finalised. Though the procurement proposal has been moved by the Indian Navy, all three services are likely to get 10 drones each.
The remotely piloted drones, manufactured by US defence major General Atomics, are capable of remaining airborne for around 35 hours and can be deployed on a range of missions including surveillance, reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and destroying enemy targets. The medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) Predator-B drone is the first hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for long-endurance and high-altitude surveillance.
Last year, the Indian Navy received two Predator drones on lease from the US, primarily for surveillance over the Indian Ocean. The two non-weaponised MQ-9B drones were leased for a year with the option of extending the period by another year.
In February last year, India sealed a USD 2.6 billion deal with the United States for the procurement of 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters from American aerospace major Lockheed Martin for the Navy. The delivery of the helicopters has already begun.