As per recent media reports, India is planning to weaponize its Heron UAVs which will turn them in combat UAVs. This will turn these legacy Herons into an effective offensive platform that may be used by all three services. Team Guarding India brings you a fascinating story of India’s upcoming Heron upgrade plan.
Heron is a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was developed by Israel Aerospace Industries in early 2002s. This UAV can continuously fly for 52 hours at an altitude of 10,600 meters or 35,000 ft. However, the routine operations are below this endurance and ceiling limit which often vary according to mission and payload requirements.
The Heron is a highly autonomous drone with a fully automatic launch and recovery (ALR). Heron can navigate its pre-programmed flight path using an internal GPS module without any human interference/monitoring. Heron can also be flown manually using a ground control station which is very responsive. Heron uses two types of command and communication systems which include ground relay station for short-range flights or dedicated satellite links for long-range long-endurance missions. In case of loss of communication, Heron UAV can autonomously return to the home base from where it was launched. This capability ensures Heron can be flown in all weather conditions without fear of losing UAV in adverse weather.
The Heron UAV can carry a payload of 250 kg which may consist of electro-optical payload including infrared and low light cameras, electronic intelligence (ELINT) and communication intelligence/interception (COMINT) systems. Heron can also carry a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) payload that may be used to penetrate cloud cover and dense fog.
India has around 90 Heron UAVs that are used by the Indian Army, Indian Air Force, and Indian Navy for different roles. In Indian Army service, Heron is used for target acquisition, artillery shoots, and border surveillance. Heron’s impressive sensors are innovatively used by the Indian Army to monitor terrorist launchpads across LoC and track terrorist infiltrations. In Indian Air Force service, COMINT and ELINT duties are primary roles while the Indian Navy uses Herons to monitor Pakistani and Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean region.
The proposed upgrade for these 90 Heron UAVs is rumored to cost around INR 3500 crore which will turn these unarmed Heron surveillance platforms into a lethal war machine. At present, exact details of these upgrades are not available as India is the first country in the world to turn its Herons into unmanned combat aerial vehicles or UCAV.
Team Guarding India hopes the Indian Heron upgrade will be modeled after Heron TP UCAVs, 10 of which have already been ordered by India. The Heron TP has a payload capacity of 2700 kgs and can fly to a range of 7000 kms. Heron TP can fly continuously at an altitude of 14000 meters or 46,000 ft for more than 30 hours. This flight performance will be supported by a new engine that will produce 900 kW instead of present 86 kW engines used by present-day Heron UAVs. However, the exact capabilities will be known only after the test flight of first upgraded Heron UAV.
As an unsaid rule, Israel never discloses which weapons are used on its UCAVs however, Team Guarding India hopes that upgraded Herons will be capable of being armed with all Israeli and Indian lightweight weapons. This includes the smaller Spice 250 laser-guided bombs weighing just 125 Kg which can strike targets 100 km away whose bigger cousin, Spice 2000 was used by Indian Air Force in daring Balakot Strike inside Pakistan on 26 February 2019.
Upgraded Herons are also expected to be armed with lightweight air to surface missile of Indian and Israeli origin. Most likely air-launched LAHAT anti-tank missiles with 13 km range and air-launched Spike missile with 5-8 km range will be used by upgraded Herons. In the future, Indian Helina missiles may also be used once they are operational.
Team Guarding India hopes that upgraded Heron UAVs will give India an effective, lethal, and economical UCAV option that will be a massive capability boost for Indian Armed forces. The armed Herons will not only secure India’s borders but also provided valuable experience until ‘Made in India’ Rustom UAVs enter operational service.