After several rounds of discussions, Project Cheetah, under which India’s Heron drones are to be upgraded and armed with Israel’s help, is finally set to take off.
Sources in the defense and security establishment said cost negotiations for the nearly Rs 5,000 crore project involving Herons that are in service with the Indian Air Force (IAF), Army, and the Navy, has been completed and is in the last stage of decision making.
The Indian Air Force, which is the end agency for this project, is looking at a timeline within this fiscal to sign the contract, sources said.
Under the project, the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Israeli Herons, used by all three Services, will be upgraded.
This upgrade will include enabling the Herons with the capability of satellite navigation and specialized sensors.
But the icing on the cake is the plan to arm them. Under the contract, the Israelis will upgrade the Herons with the ability to not only undertake more specialized and longer surveillance missions but also precision strikes.
The Herons will have the capability to carry and launch air-to-ground precision missiles, sources said.
The development comes at a time when the Indian defense forces have also decided to jointly procure 30 High Altitude Long Endurance armed drones, MQ-9B, from the US.
Sources explained that both systems are different in capability and use. Hence, there is no overlap.
Sources said that after the Rafale fighter jet contract, the priority was 83 LCA Mk 1 A deal which was inked earlier this year. Other priorities included certain missile systems among others.
Project first initiated by IAF
Sources said that Project Cheetah was first initiated by the IAF in 2013. At that time the IAF was planning to upgrade the Herons in use with them.
Subsequently, a decision was taken to upgrade the Herons in service with the Army and the Navy as well.
There was also a plan to buy armed predator drones in larger numbers from the US, but it was shelved as the systems were proving to be very expensive.
Sources explained that the upgrade of the Herons serves the purpose it is intended for since the idea is to equip these systems with anti-personnel and anti-armor missiles, which will be smaller than the traditional ones.
“The drones will operate in contested airspace. Because it will eventually have its own censors and armament, it reduces the time from spotting a target and launching a strike from elsewhere. The idea of having such systems is that it reduces the risk against pilots flying the fighters,” a former senior IAF officer explained.
The officer explained that the other Israeli surveillance drone in use with the Indian forces, Searcher, cannot be armed because they are smaller in size.
Source: The Print