Tapas was now in the hands of the Indian Navy, its naval version being tested for mission parameters

How India’s TAPAS UAV, a survivor of Kargil War era, stands a fighting chance

July 4 marks the 24th anniversary of Pakistan army’s withdrawal from Kargil, following a meeting between former US President Bill Clinton and former Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif in the White House

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States, where President Joe Biden welcomed ‘India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B high altitude-long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)’ — in paragraph 16 of the 58-para joint statement issued on June 22 — the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which has been developing a similar UAV since 2011, put out a statement in Bangalore, which was carried prominently in sections of the media.

The UAV, which had been flown and operated by the Navy in a trial on June 19, is now ready for user evaluation trials, as per DRDO. According to reports, the DRDO stated on June 27, “The 200th flight of Tactical Aerial Platform for Advanced Surveillance (TAPAS) UAV was demonstrated to the tri-services team for the first time at Aeronautical Test Range (ATR) Chitradurga. The team appreciated indigenous efforts for development of the UAV. TAPAS is now ready for user evaluation trials.” That makes for a very large number of flight hours, and the test was conducted on June 27.

The race against time

What could this announcement mean against the proposed procurement of the 31 American MQ-9B drones? It could be clear in a week or so if tri-services evaluation will happen at all.

A little explanation could be in order. There is a race against time for the indigenous system. The DRDO has to clear the domestic rules for compliance. There is a set of procedures that governs the design and development process and its induction into the services. It is a step-by-step and very complicated process, and these were set out for the public in a 139-page handbook put out by the DRDO in 2002 — the first update after 1975 — and called the Procedure for the Design and Development of Military Aircraft and Airborne Stores, which is updated every now and then. This intricate process does not make the race an even race.

Also read: Indian Army looks beyond US-owned GPS that ditched it in Kargil war

This week, India is to issue a letter of request to the US government under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) procedure that, incidentally, does not have much scope for negotiations in terms of price or otherwise, contrary to some claims. It means that the M (multi-role) Q (remotely piloted aircraft system)-9B is already off the starting gun, the imponderable here is a bipartisan consensus for the sale to India, given our stance on Ukraine.

The DRDO should be in a position to finesse these aerial vehicles to the Tri-services — Indian Navy, Army and Air Force — before the system is shut out by the market forces. Before that can happen, the services must declare themselves completely satisfied with the vehicle. That cannot happen if there is no tri-service evaluation — a first step.

The Tri-service evaluation

The Tri-service requirement can be a tricky thing. Each of the services will want a beast with a different specification.  If the requirements are not rated jointly, it is difficult to evaluate it jointly. In this instance, we already know the TAPAS had been handed over briefly to the Navy on June 19 when INS Subhadra (P51) controlled it off the Karwar coast. It wouldn’t be offered for user trials if the Navy was not satisfied with the performance.

We know about half of the MQ-9Bs — from available information, the number stands at 15 — will be operated by the Navy and eight each by the Air Force and Army. It speaks to the Navy’s greater requirement with two aircraft carriers, their forward deployment and the necessary air cover. The Navy variant will be a force multiplier over greater distances. Given the system is largely for the Navy but may also be used for Army, Naval, hot desert and high altitude conditions will be factored into the tests. The same goes for the Air Force.

Also read: Pervez Musharraf: The General behind Kargil war and failed Agra Summit

Since the Army’s primary responsibility lies within the borders, what specific role will the Army request? Generally, the Army is interested in fulfilling requirements related to land-based anti-aircraft guns, missiles, and defence of vulnerable areas and points such as airfields, industrial complexes, and sensitive infrastructure. Additionally, they seek to enhance battlefield and situational awareness, leveraging the UAV’s capability to loiter over the theatre.

The Navy, on the other hand, is responsible for intercepting incoming missiles and low-flying aircraft. The Air Force has similar requirements as well. Consequently, the choice of weapons system depends on the specific requirements outlined. Currently, it is unclear what kind of weapons, if any, have been specified for the MQ-9B UAV.

The Kargil fiasco

The Kargil fiasco occurred in high altitude, when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, when unbeknownst to the Army, the Pakistanis, egged on by the inimitable General Pervez Musharraf, slunk into our comfort zones, and changed the pattern of defence acquisition pattern radically. This is the 24th anniversary of the denouement worked out in the White House on July 4, 1999, between President Clinton and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Curiously, UAVs seem to have been largely absent from the Army’s arsenal during the Kargil intrusion, although references are there to helicopters in the Northern Army command.

This is what the Kargil Review Committee Report (From Surprise to Reckoning, December 15, 1999) has to say about UAVs (page 255): “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles also known as Remotely Piloted Vehicles are extremely useful and effective in surveillance, especially if they have night vision and thermal imaging capacities. UAVs have just been inducted and operating in the planes under the charge of the army. Similar efforts must be made for the acquisition of High Altitude UAVs.”

If this was the situation with regard to Pakistan, we can well imagine what it might have been in terms of aerial surveillance on Chinese positions along our border areas up in the heights. The searing Kargil experience more or less submerged indigenous development, and spurred frenetic and indiscriminate procurement of all kinds, including aluminium coffin caskets and body bags. Hopefully, with the Chinese intrusions and land-holding, a similar situation is not upon us again.

Post-Pokhran 2, the Americans came back with a suggestion to restart formal military- to-military connection that complicated the playing field even more. The TAPAS is a survivor from that era, more or less. Will it survive this acquisition process? That is only one of the questions. The confusion remains.

Also read: How drones are proliferated in India — from R-Day parade to drug delivery

The MQ-9B is an HAV while the TAPAS is billed as a Medium Altitude Vehicle. HAVs fly nine km to 11 km (35,000 feet) above sea level. At that altitude or higher, a satellite could provide the same kind of information and with much less threat of being shot down. There are not very many theatres other than the Himalayas that might have requirements for this. Not so much the Naval arena or the desert or the North East. How much is the capability overlap between the TAPAS and the MQ-9B?

To put it differently, is there a conflict in the technological specifications? From available reports, it appears that the systems we are buying are off the inventory, in knocked-down form, and will be assembled in India. It has not been developed specifically for us. Are there any changes from the original specifications that have been written down? Has India projected these requirements? Have we projected a requirement for an arms system? As long as there is really no conflict between MAV and HAV, the TAPAS has a fighting chance.

(V Sudarshan, a journalist, writes on foreign/strategic affairs and is the author most recently of ‘Tuticorin: Adventures in Tamil Nadu’s Crime Capital’, and ‘Dead End: The Minister, the CBI and the Murder that Wasn’t’.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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