In the latest of a raft of unmanned system requirements, the Indian army has announced interest in an unspecified number of tactical short-range UAVs to bolster its small fleet of IAI Searcher Mk. 2 drones.

The army’s Artillery Directorate, which governs UAV operations until the proposed establishment of a separate service group, requires the UAV for counter-insurgency operations in the forests of Central India, border surveillance in the deserts of the northwest and high-altitude reconnaissance in the northern areas. The Indian army is already in the market for hand-launched tactical UAVs for infantry, vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) UAVs for counter-insurgency operations and a stand-off loitering weapon.

Army sources confirm that the service is looking for a conventional take-off and landing platform similar to the Searcher Mk. 2, with endurance of up to 4 hr. The army has stated that it would also prefer a platform capable of carrying communications, intelligence and synthetic aperture radar payloads.

In many ways, the effort to induct more UAVs accentuates the troubled relationship between the army and Indian air force (IAF) over aviation assets. The government recently decreed that the army would control its own armed helicopters, not the IAF, sparking fresh plans within the Army for more helicopters, and perhaps fixed-wing aircraft in the medium term too.

“The army is the largest service in the country, and has perhaps the smallest UAV strength,” says a brigadier posted with a formation that deploys Searcher Mk. 2 drones. “Given the breadth of deployment, it is part of a larger plan to induct UAVs of different capabilities across our theaters of operation. The army’s responsibilities have increased dramatically, and we need to have assets available to deploy at short notice if the State requires it.”

The Army has made great efforts to build UAV infrastructure in the north and northeast of the country to support rapidly increasing demands for aerial surveillance support. Systems are so apparently stretched — and inter-agency cooperation so troublesome — that the country’s paramilitary forces have now individually decided to raise their own UAV units. The Central Reserve Police Force, deployed in the jungles of Central India for operations against ultra-left insurgents, recently inducted a small fleet of Netra mini VTOL systems for over-the-hill surveillance and intelligence gathering. The National Technical Research Organization, set up after the Kargil War to oversee intelligence gathering, has failed to intercept the springing up of a raft of requirements across services that it was originally meant to cater to — including the army itself. The Indian Coast Guard, which doesn’t operate UAVs, is now contemplating floating requirements for a sizeable fleet of systems of coastal and in-shore surveillance.

This year will mark a milestone with the induction, after years of development, of the fully indigenous Nishant tactical UAV into the army. User trials of the system were successfully carried out last year, and the army is preparing to induct a fleet of 20 Nishants. The system, built for deployment off a mobile hydro-pneumatic launcher and parachute recovery, will be first deployed in the desert sector. A follow-on order for 40 more Nishant drones will be processed once the first 20 are declared operational.