India's stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) program is taking shape, with the first images surfacing from the design optimization and concept definition phase.

The flying-wing concept, designated the Indian Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle (IUSAV), is a derivative of existing flying-wing UAVs such as the European Neuron and Boeing Phantom Ray. But in fresh indications coming from the Bengaluru-based team developing the platform, the IUSAV, code-named Aura, could see a first prototype flight by 2015-16, with deliveries by the end of the decade. Such timelines are ambitious—especially for a program involving technologies that India has never before attempted—but the Indian air force (IAF) and government decided to accord special funding and other support to keep the IUSAV on schedule. The director of the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), V.K. Saraswat, recently visited Sweden, where he is believed to have had discussions with Saab on India's unmanned efforts, including the IUSAV. Saraswat's presentation at the Aerospace Forum there—where he described the IUSAV as an “unmanned bomber”—also revealed that IUSAV program laboratories were pursuing development of radar-absorbent paint and materials, cool exhaust signatures for infrared suppression, conformal sensors and antennas, data links and flying-wing aerodynamics. His presentation also illustrated elaborate threat scenarios involving future combat air systems, which included not just the IUSAV but also an indigenous fifth-generation stealth fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, and the Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft, or PAK FA.

Representatives from Dassault, Saab and BAE Systems say that all three companies are in discussions with the DRDO for possible technology partnerships in the IUSAV project. DRDO sources indicate that teams from the organization have been invited to visit facilities in France and the U.K., respectively, where the Neuron and BAE Taranis are being developed.

With the platform's shape near definite, a cluster of Indian aeronautical agencies has already begun designing and conceptualizing the IUSAV's major components, notably a flight-control system for the autopilot, control laws for autonomous flight, a serpentine air intake for its single turbofan engine—a modified variant of the Indian Kaveri—mechanical and fluidic thrust-vector control and large-eddy simulation of flying-wing configurations with elevons or dragerons. The design images also reveal that the IUSAV is being developed with twin internal weapon bays capable of carrying one Paveway-type precision-guided munition each.

A scientist with the Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Agency claims the program has built-in mechanisms to check costs and delays. “We are aware of the complexities and expectations. We hope to make this program a clean break from the others,” he says.

Air Marshal T.M. Asthana, a retired IAF fighter pilot who was the first chief of India's Strategic Forces Command, says: “I'm not sure manned flight in the Indian context will shift as a paradigm any time soon. However, it is important that India invests in UCAV technologies.”

In fact, the IAF—despite its proclivity for manned aircraft—called for information from the global market two years ago to support the potential purchase of UCAVs; but it received little or no response, prompting it to throw its weight behind the IUSAV project, now deemed classified by the Indian government.

“There is a recognition from the start that this is a major and difficult project,” says an IAF officer with the Air Headquarters plans division. “But it cannot go the way the LCA Tejas program has gone. Lessons learned have to be part of the IUSAV. That's the plan. The IAF and DRDO are working more closely than ever before.”

India's Predator-type hunter-killer UAV, the twin-turboprop-powered Rustom-2, is likely to begin flight testing by late 2013. The IUSAV is expected to draw several evolutionary technologies from the Rustom-2.