By Rohit Srivastava
The world is witnessing the efficiency and lethality of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for the last two decades in various theatres of war. For the first time, in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, the manned and unmanned aircraft teamed together to bring a quick end to the long-standing dispute. This was the first time when a decisive victory is credited to a UAV system, in this case, Turkish made TB-2 of Turkish and Azeri air forces.
This is the dawn of the era of manned-unmanned teaming, concept much in discussion for some time. Globally, leading military powers are working towards developing an unmanned system to team up with their fourth-generation fighters.
To everyone’s surprise, India’s premier aviation company Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) made public it's very own Combined Air Teaming System (CATS) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). The self-financed programme is comprised of three types of UAVs for different missions.
A mockup model of the semi-stealth CATS Warrior was on display at the HAL pavilion. This was the highlight of the show. This brings India at par with the US, Australia, Russia and Europe who are also developing similar systems.
While addressing a press conference at the air show CATS, R Madhavan, Chairman HAL, said, about Rs. 400 crore is the initial investment in CATS ‘Warrior’ and that the investment would be scaled up as the programme progresses. HAL’s Warrior is being developed to go into combat as a loyal wingman drone with existing manned fighter jets like LCA Tejas and Rafale of the IAF to complement and maximise their effectiveness.
HAL describes it as "a composite amalgamation of manned and unmanned platforms which work together to penetrate heavily defended enemy airspace."
The program is comprised of three unmanned systems, CATS Warrior which can go into enemy territory up to 700 km and strike or go 350 km and come back. CATS Hunter will be a deep strike asset while the mother ship will be in the Indian Territory. While CATS Alpha will be swarm drones of 4 or 8 or 16 or 24 units, each capable of carrying 5 kg payload, including bombs. These stealth drones which would be solar energised can go up to 70,000 feet doing all kinds of ISR activities.
Warrior and Hunters are expected to be powered by modified PTE-7 engine currently in use with Lakshya target drones.
The idea of the program is to maximise the effectiveness of every mission while also reducing the potential of losing the lives of pilots since they would be accompanied by the drones which are supposed to protect them.
The drones are being developed by Aeronautical Development Establishment, DRDO for HAL. The CATS Warrior is likely to be part of IAF in the next 4 to 5 years.
Reportedly, HAL began working on the project in 2017 and IAF is impressed with the program outcome so far. With CATS, India is in the league of select nations who are developing manned-unmanned teaming system.
Boeing Loyal Wingman
This is Boeing’s first unmanned system to be designed and developed in Australia. The program is the company’s biggest investment in the unmanned program outside the United States. The primary focus of the program is to fulfil Australian needs. Boeing states that the UAV can be customized for any other customer’s needs.
This Airpower Teaming System comprised of conventional fighters with unmanned aircraft which uses artificial intelligence to achieve mission objectives operating as a force multiplier.
Boeing calls the combination ‘airpower reimagined’.
The stealth loyal wingman is 38 feet long (11.7m) and can fly to a distance of 2,000 nautical miles. It will be armed with sensors and system for intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and early warning. It will be capable of independent flights. The maiden flight of the wingman took place in the latter part of last year.
United States Air Force has sanctioned $400 million for Skyborg Vanguard Program. “Skyborg is an autonomy-focused capability that will enable the Air Force to operate and sustain low-cost, teamed aircraft that can thwart adversaries with quick, decisive actions in contested environments,” US Air Research Lab (AFRL) says.
“The program will enable airborne combat mass by building a transferable autonomy foundation for a family of layered, unmanned air vehicles. This foundation will deliver unmatched combat capability per dollar by lowering the barriers to entry for industry and allowing continuous hardware and software innovation in acquisition, fielding and sustainment of critical mission systems,” it adds.
According to AFRL, Skyborg is one of the vanguard program designated in 2019. The purpose is to acquire more capability per dollar. The program will bring together available technologies from various other areas and combine them to acquire unique capability.
USAF received 18 offers and has selected indefinite-delivery / indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contracts to The Boeing Co., General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Kratos Unmanned Aerial Systems, Inc. and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. prototyping, experimentation and autonomy development, used to deliver missionized prototypes in support of operational experimentation. The sanctioned budget is shared ceiling. It is expected to be complete by July 2026.
Russian Okhotnik teaming
On September 27, 2019, Russian announced joint flight of its fifth-generation stealth fighter Su-57 with stealth attack UAV Okhotnik.
Quoting Russian Ministry of Defence, news agency TASS said, “During the flight, the drone and the Su-57 fighter practised interaction to broaden the fighter’s radar coverage and to provide target acquisition for employing air-launched weapons.” The joint flight lasted for 30 minutes.
Okhotnik, unveiled during ‘Army 2019’ expo, is expected to join service in 2025 and will undergo weapons trials in another two years time. The twenty-ton drone powered by a jet engine can reach 1000 km.
Although Russia has not publicly disclosed the manned-unmanned teaming project, it is working towards it. Recently, on December 23, Russian Tu-95MS ‘practised in-flight guidance’ of a UAV, reports TASS.
Quoting a source, the agency says that “the plane had been refit with special drone guidance equipment.”
“The source did not specify the type of drone used during the trials. He also did not confirm that such trials ever involved the Okhotnik (Hunter) heavy strike drone, but did not rule out the possibility of such exercises in the future,” the agency said in the report.
Europe is also working towards developing manned-unmanned teaming systems. Multiple Europeans companies like Airbus and Leonardo are working on similar programs.
If HAL can deliver the CATS system in the planned timeline, India, for the first time in history, will field a homegrown system simultaneously with the world’s leading military power. Successful execution of CATS will not only put India at par with global military powers but will give a decisive edge over its adversaries. Given HAL’s performance in its self-financed programs HTT-40 and Light Utility Helicopter, one can be assured that the company knows where it stands and has put money where the mouth is.