Imagine the enemy who is carefully making his movements, digging trenches, making fighting positions, netting tents & positioning his weapons to his advantage. He has done careful planning to hold & defend the illegally acquired Indian land & he thinks that he has made a master move which will catch the Indian side by surprise. Well, he is highly mistaken. While he was preparing his base thinking no one from the other side of the border was watching, an Indian drone was silently flying 45,000 feet above his head, watching his every movement, thus providing crucial intelligence to the Indian side to prepare for a counterattack.
That’s how the hunter gets hunted.
This story might be imaginary but is not very far from reality. The surveillance & reconnaissance drones of the Indian Air Force & the Indian Army constantly keep an eye over the borders to see if the enemy is up for any adventure. Now to boost this capability, recently the Indian army “leased” 4 units of the Heron TP, an advanced version of the Heron Drone which is already in service with the Indian Armed Forces. The Heron is a formidable platform in itself with an elaborate operational history in combat theatres in Gaza, Israel, Afghanistan & Turkey. The Heron TP (also called Eitan) takes the capabilities of the Heron to the next step.
The Heron TP is designated as a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV. One key difference from the older generation of Heron UAVs is that the “TP” can operate at altitudes above commercial air traffic. Also, the UAV features all-weather capability, de-icing systems, and triple-redundant avionics. The Heron navigates using an internal GPS navigation device, and either a pre-programmed flight profile using waypoint navigation or manual control from a ground control station, or a combination of both. It can autonomously return to base and land in case of lost communication with the ground station.
This 14 meter long UAV has a high-wing cantilever monoplane structure with a wingspan of 26 meters & a high aspect ratio which provides it excellent glide characteristics. It is because of these straight wings that the Heron can fly for extended periods of time without burning much fuel. Booms extend rearward from the wings and carry twin tails that are joined by a common horizontal stabiliser. A single PT6A turboprop engine is mounted in the rear fuselage, driving a pusher propeller. This is one of the most iconic & successful engines of all times as it currently powers aircraft in service with over 7,100 operators in more than 180 countries. The PT6A have accumulated over 400+ million flying hours. Naturally, this makes the Heron TP an extremely reliable aircraft to fly.
Once fully fuelled & armed, the Heron TP can fly for more than 30 hours straight at 46,000 feet. For reference, the commercial airliners fly at 35,000 feet. The 30-hour endurance is crucial for extended loitering requirements when you don’t know when the enemy is going to make a movement & it is constantly required by the minute to keep an eye on him. The Heron TP can fly at a max speed of 400 kmph & while flying at a cruise speed of 250-280 kmph, the aircraft can cover a distance of 7,400 km in one sortie.
The construction of the airframe is of composite materials throughout which not only makes it lighter for higher endurance but also disperses the incoming radar waves up to a limit which aids in stealth.
Where the Heron TP shines is its intelligence-gathering capabilities. It can carry an array of sensors, including Infrared camera, visible-light airborne ground surveillance sensors, COMINT / ELINT systems and various radar systems totalling 1,000 kg. The Heron TP is also capable of target acquisition and artillery adjustment. These payload sensors communicate with the ground control station in real time, using either direct line of sight data link, or via an airborne/satellite relay (SATCOM).
The Heron TP UAVs are also armed with weapons; however, it is unclear if the Indian Army is getting the Armaments along with the aircraft. In 2018, Indian Air Force purchased 10 Heron TP UAVs armed with ground attack missiles. So, it can be concluded that the Army also have a strike capability with these 4 new aircraft.
The Indian Army, for keeping a vigil in the Ladakh sector, has “leased” 4 of these aircraft from Israel for a period of 3 years with an option to extend for 2 more years. The lease amount is not disclosed but sources say that it is in the vicinity of 200 million USD.
This system can be compared to the indigenous UAV Rustom-II (TAPAS-BH-201) which is under Prototype flight testing phase. Both the aircraft are of similar configuration & role. Since the Rustom-II is not ready to be operationalised yet, the 3 year lease of Heron TP is going to provide a breather for DRDO in the flight testing of Rustom-II. Once the Rustom-II is operational, the Heron TP will possibly be returned to the parent country (Israel). This leasing of military equipment shows a dramatic & progressive shift towards the filling of gaps in the military hardware requirements. The deal was signed in a very short notice & the aircraft will be delivered shortly, bypassing the long processes of traditionally acquiring equipment, thus providing enough flexibility & agility in maintaining the security at the borders.
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