At the beginning of the last century geniuses across the world were making efforts to put more humans into aircrafts, a hundred years later today the effort is being made to put the human out of it. The Predator series of “drones”, technically called RPA or Remotely Piloted Aircraft are the pioneers of this kind. Thanks to the changing defence policy of our country, we have been able to get our hands on the latest variant of the Predator, the MQ-9 Predator-B or “Sea Guardian” on a lease for one year.
Last week, the Indian Navy very silently inducted the Sea Guardian Drone at the Naval Air Station INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu under the Eastern Naval Command. This naval station is iconic because it is the same station which historically operated the heaviest, fastest and highest flying turbo prop aircraft in the world, the Tu-142M. Currently INS Rajali is the home of P-8I Neptune Anti-Submarine warfare aircraft & since last week, the MQ-9B Sea Guardian Drone.
Diving into details of Sea Guardian, it is an unarmed variant of the ubiquitous MQ-9 Predator-B unmanned aerial vehicle. It is designated as a MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV & will be primarily used for surveillance in the vast stretches of the Indian Ocean & sea trade routes where using a large manned aircraft can be inefficient as well as costly. The operator (drone pilot) flies the aircraft & operates the sensors from a console in the ground. This doesn’t need to be in LOS (line of sight) as the signalling & communication happens via SatCom (Satellite Communication). These can work in semi-autonomous mode by flying through waypoint navigation but still needs human intervention for critical tasks. As a result, the operator can sit in a Command HQ in a coastal base & can fully operate the UAV in Malacca Strait.
It’s primary advantage over a manned maritime reconnaissance aircraft is it’s endurance. Unlike a usual maritime patrol aircraft, this can fly upto 30 hours straight in an ISTAR Mission (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance). Staying over a designated AOR (area of responsibility) undetected for long periods of time gives the advantage of providing real time target feedback & monitoring.
The Sea Guardian has a 900 hp turboprop engine (pic above) which makes it very silent & undetectable in the IR band also. Moreover, it flies at 50,000 feet which is a very respectable number (airliners fly at 35,000 feet). At those heights, it is visually undetected from the ground. Thus it acts like a ghost who has a constant eye on the enemy & the enemy cannot hear or see it.
The Sea Guardian’s main too of the trade it it’s sensor suite. It’s sensors have a bunch of 368 cameras, each of which have 5000 Megapixels resolution. Video capturing from this produces several terabytes per minute of data. The end result of this is it gives an excellent detail of whatever is happening on ground from 50,000 feet. It can zoom up on 60 different location at the same time & can identify anything as small as 6 inches. That’s the capability of just one Sea Guardian which can cover surveillance on an area of upto 100 km square at a time.
This means on ground, upto 60 different military intelligence teams can decipher 60 different real time images obtained by a single MQ-9B as it is flying. This is a huge jump in capabilities from satellite surveillance which is not realtime & doesn’t give a video feed.
The drones are here for a duration of one year. As stated before, the Navy is operating the aircraft on lease under the emergency procurement in the backdrop of the tensions with China in Ladakh. Even though the drones are on lease, they are flying with Indian Navy logo & Indian colours under the full operational control of the Navy and it will have exclusive access to all the information that the drone will capture. The role of the American firm is to ensure availability of the two drones based on the contract signed. This means that the Sea Guardians will be flown by Indian Navy personnel and all data acquired by the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle will be the sole property of India.
But this is not the end as the Armed Forces are looking at a much larger order of upto 30 such Drones which will reinforce the surveillance wing of the forces in years to come. These can also be armed as we have seen the importance of armed drones in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The future of combat is here already. Finally 2020 feels like how we all envisaged it as kids.
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