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Securing the Skies

In a surge skywards, India reinforces its defence with Rafale-Marine Jets and Hermes 900 StarLiner Drones

November 14, 2023 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By Dassault Aviation / S. Randé, Elbit Systems
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Rafale-Marine fighter jet

A Press Information Bureau (PIB) release of July 13, 2023 had said that the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, has approved proposals to procure 26 Rafale-Marine fighter jets from France to boost Indian Navy's operational capabilities, as well as three additional Scorpene submarines under the Buy (Indian) category. The issue of the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) coincided with the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to France on July 13-14, 2023.

The Defence Acquisition Council's approval of 26 Rafale-Marine fighter jets, involving the procurement of 22 single-seat Rafale M jets and four twin-seat trainers, marks a significant stride in enhancing the operational prowess of the Indian Navy.

The PIB release further said that DAC granted Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for procurement of Rafale M aircraft along with associated ancillary equipment, weapons, simulator, spares, documentation, crew training and logistic support based on Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA); with the price and terms of purchase to be negotiated with the French Government. Further, integration of Indian designed equipment and establishment of Maintenance, Repair & Operations (MRO) Hub for various systems is to be incorporated into the contract after negotiations.

Subsequent news reports of October 28, 2023 said thata detailed Letter of Request (LoR) has been issued by the Ministry of Defence to the French Directorate General of Armaments for the proposed deal. The deal will include 22 single-seat Rafale M jets and four twin-seat trainers, along with weapons, simulator, spares, crew training and logistics support, sources said. The LoR for the government-to-government deal, which involves off-the-shelf procurement of the Dassault Aviation-manufactured jets, comes soon after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited France on October 10, 2023.

The negotiations for the Rafale M deal include plans for integration of Indian-designed equipment and the establishment of a Maintenance, Repair & Operations (MRO) Hub, aligning with India's 'Make In India' initiative for self-sufficiency in defence production

The Indian Navy's aircraft carriers INS 'Vikramaditya' and INS 'Vikrant' have been operating the Russian MiG-29s and need the Rafale M for operations on both carriers. The deal is estimated to be worth thousands of crores of rupees but the final cost will only be clear only after the contract negotiations are completed, according to an unnamed official source quoted in the media, who added that India is likely to seek some concession in the price and may also insist on a greater focus on the 'Make In India' content.

The Rafale M was first fielded into the French Naval Aviation in December 2000 and its avionics were tested during simulated interceptions with various foreign aircraft, in addition to carrier take-offs and landings.After almost four years of training, the Rafale M was declared operational with the French Navy in June 2004.

Hermes StarLiner UAS

The Indian Army has recently inducted the Heron Mk 2 drones, which can be equipped with strike capabilities, in the northern sector. The Army also has the older version of Heron unmanned aircraft which are deployed at various locations across the country. News reports of November 7, 2023 now reveal that Hermes 900 StarLiner drones are also set to be inducted into the Indian Army, Hermes 900 StarLiner, also known as Hermes 900 Heavy-Fuel Engine (HFE), is the larger variant of the Hermes 900 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) developed by Elbit Systems of Israel. This UAS is suitable for military and commercial applications, including intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), maritime patrol and border security. The drone has a wing span of 17m and a maximum take-off weight of 1,600 kg. The aircraft's automatic take-off and landing (ATOL) capability allows it to take-off and land in near-zero visibility environments. An active de-icing system is installed for removing ice on surfaces to ensure safe operation in icing conditions. The drone has direct and indirect lighting strike capability and can perform missions under instrument flight rules (IFR) in all weather conditions.

The Hermes 900 StarLiner drone can carry a range of multi-sensor payloads weighing up to 450 kg for multiple applications. It is compatible with multi-spectral electro-optical (EO) payloads such as SPECTRO XR, Wescam MX15/20, SkEye wide-area airborne persistent video surveillance (WAPS), MIST G airborne imaging system, and laser designator/marker. The SPECTRO XR (ISTAR) system is installed beneath the nose cone to provide surveillance, fire control and targeting capabilities. The belly mounted SkEye WAPS is used for intelligence gathering, observation and surveillance purposes. The onboard imaging sensors capture real-time imagery/video and provide wide-area persistent surveillance during both the day and night.

The induction of Hermes 900 StarLiner drones by the Indian Army brings cutting-edge capabilities, including multi-sensor payloads and electronic warfare, providing a force multiplier in reconnaissance and surveillance.

The drone is equipped with a terrain avoidance warning system (TAWS) for terrain prediction and obstacle avoidance. A co-operative and non-cooperative Detect & Avoid (D&A) system with air-to-air radar sensors is installed to detect both co-operative and non-cooperative aircraft. A redundant data link with a broad bandwidth is fitted to the aircraft's nose cone to provide line-of-sight (LOS) and beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications. The Hermes 900 StarLiner drone is equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR), a ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar and a maritime patrol radar to detect, locate and acquire targets. It can also carry electronic warfare payloads to provide airborne electronic attack capability.

The Indian Army and the Navy recently placed orders for four Hermes 900 drones at a cost just below 600 crore using emergency financial powers that allow quick selection and signing of contracts for emergency requirements. Deliveries of the four drones are expected to take place in 2024. These Medium Altitude Long Endurance drones are to be manufactured in India by Adani Elbit at their facility in Telangana.

Induction of the Heron Mark-2 drone along with the planned induction of the Hermes 900 StarLiner drone will be good force multipliers for the Indian Army. The media has quoted an Army source, saying, "Induction of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) Heron Mk-II and planned induction of the Hermes 900 StarLiners will not only boost the reconnaissance and surveillance capability of the Indian Army but also their teaming with combat helicopters, which will prove to be a game changer in the third dimension. The transfer of these remotely piloted aircraft has further enhanced the Army's surveillance as well as strike capability and transformed Army Aviation into a potent force multiplier capable of operating in the Combined Combat Teams concept and performing various tasks across the varied terrain of our country."