As tension continues to simmer between India and China over Ladakh, New Delhi will be buying four Heron MK-II UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries and will deploy them to the area for surveillance purposes.
The agreement between New Delhi and IAI was signed in mid-January, but the arrival of the UAVs was delayed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Times of India, the first two UAVs will arrive in India in two to three months, while the other two will arrive by the end of the year.
The deal, worth some $200 million, was at first set to be a three-year lease agreement, but New Delhi decided to purchase the platforms as part of the country’s plans to upgrade its military amid the ongoing border conflict with China.
Indian media reported that the Indian Air Force’s plan, dubbed “Project Cheetah,” will see 90 Heron drones flying with the Indian Air Force, Indian Army, and Indian Navy be upgraded with laser-guided bombs, air-to-ground and air-launched anti-tank guided missiles.
The Indian Air Force already operates more than 180 Israeli-made UAVs, including 108 IAI-made Searchers and 68 unarmed Heron 1s for surveillance and intelligence gathering as well as a fleet of IAI-produced Harpy UAVs, which carry a high-explosive warhead and self-destructs to take out targets such as radar stations.
“The deal is a testament to our customers’ strong satisfaction with the Heron UAVs, including their operational and technical performance. Our customers repeatedly choose the Heron for its broad range of intelligence collection missions in different ground and weather settings,” IAI president and CEO Boaz Levy said in January at the time of the signing.
Using the most advanced technologies developed by IAI to date, the Heron MK II is a strategic and versatile aircraft capable of carrying diverse payloads. Fitted with a Rotax 915 iS engine, the Heron MK II can reach an altitude of over 10,000 meters, a maximum speed of 140 knots, and can remain in the air for 45 consecutive hours.
The Heron MK-II is an updated model of the Heron UAV, which is used by the Israel Air Force and is operational with over 20 other organizations around the world.
With larger and improved sensors, the standout feature of the Heron MK-II is its standoff capability, gathering intelligence from tens of kilometers away from enemy fire and without crossing borders.
The UAV also has an onboard server, enabling operators to access large amounts of raw or processed sensor data stored on the flight. The maximum take-off weight for the Heron MK-II is 1,350 kg. with a payload weight of 470 kg., and it has a maximum speed of 140 knots compared to the 120 knots of the Heron MK-I.
The Heron MK-I has a maximum mission endurance of over 24 hours. Equipped with a satellite data link and electro-optical infrared sensors, the Heron I is able not only to provide reconnaissance to ground forces in combat situations, assist in convoying and patrolling and create movement profiles and long-term monitoring, but also to track down explosives from the air.
Due to improved manufacturing technologies, the Heron MK-II has a wider and stronger body structure, strong enough to carry Sonobuoy anti-submarine monitoring systems as well as a magnetometer to identify targets underwater.
In addition to wide-band communication systems allowing intelligence to be shared simultaneously, it also has an improved engine and avionics, a stronger propulsion system which allows for a climb rate of 550 knots (compared to the 140 knots of the older model), new configurations, new long-range observation sensors, and radars, and it can carry a wide range of additional payloads for the various configurations such as ELINT and COMINT.
The UAV has also been fitted with the most advanced automation systems, allowing operators to shut down the propulsion system and restart it using satellite communications as well as refuel it in any location where there is a runway.
Israel is considered a leading exporter of drones, and IAI has over 50 operational customers around the globe, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, India, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea.