The Indian navy's interest in a long-endurance maritime-surveillance unmanned aircraft system is drawing the attention of vendors in Israel, Europe and the U.S., and Northrop Grumman has been cleared by the U.S. government to conduct preliminary discussions with the Indian navy on the MQ-4C Triton.

The Triton is the modified Global Hawk high-altitude UAS being developed under the U.S. Navy's Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program. Northrop Grumman highlighted the platform and its capability for the first time at the Aero India exposition last month in Bengaluru.

A Northrop Grumman official at the show called the Triton “a reasonable proposition” for India. “The Indian navy is the first export customer of the Boeing P-8 [maritime patrol aircraft]. They have a substantial requirement to fill. Since the Triton is built basically to operate in conjunction with the P-8 and its systems, it seemed appropriate that we make this capability available to the customer,” he said.

The discussions “are still very preliminary, but it is probably a good idea to recognize that one of the few countries with which the U.S. government cleared us to discuss the MQ-4C is India,” the official said. The other countries being engaged on the Triton program include the U.K. and Australia.

Elbit Systems' Hermes 900 MP is another maritime-patrol UAS that has caught the Indian navy's attention. Boeing InSitu's ScanEagle small UAS, which can be launched from ships but is not a long-endurance vehicle, is also in the mix.

In 2010, the Indian navy announced its interest in acquiring a fleet of high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) maritime UAVs. It stipulated at the time that it was looking for an aircraft with a mission endurance of at least 25 hr., maximum all-up weight of 15 tons, cruising speed of 100 kt. and service ceiling of 40,000 ft.

An officer with one of the navy's UAV squadrons says, “maritime domain awareness is doctrinally established, and we need to fill many big voids. High-performance UAS that can remain on station for extended periods and provide us crucial data in real time, while scanning vast swathes of ocean on a daily basis, is a clear and necessary requirement. The Indian navy needs tactical UAS, too, but its requirement for long-endurance platforms will only increase.”

The navy has three UAS bases around the country and is in the process of contracting for more Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Herons to augment its existing fleet of the type.

For more than two years, the navy has also been in the market for shipborne rotary-wing UAS. Competitors include the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout, Saab Skeldar V-200 and EADS Cassidian Tanan 300. The requirement was floated following slow movement on the naval rotary UAV program, on which Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) is working with IAI, based on the locally built Chetak (Alouette III) helicopter. The program has run into several hurdles with the autopilot and other systems, delaying it indefinitely and compelling the navy to remove it from its immediate requirements list.

India's indigenously designed Rustom-H HALE UAS is slated for a first flight in February 2014 and has commenced ground tests. Powered by twin turboprop engines, the UAS will be developed into three variants: one for land surveillance, one for extended maritime reconnaissance and a hunter-killer variant that will be built to deploy stand-off strike weapons.