There will be a new eye in the sky hovering above one of the most dangerous flashpoints in the world.
At 14 meters, the Israeli-developed IAI Heron TP drone is the same length as a Rafale fighter jet but sports a wingspan double the size of the iconic French aircraft.
Part of a deal signed earlier this year with India’s government, it will be used on the front line of the disputed border with China in the Karakoram region for “long surveillance missions.”
“The advanced Heron drones have arrived in the country and are being deployed for surveillance operations in the eastern Ladakh sector,” a senior government source told the ANI news agency.
The Heron TP is described as a medium altitude long endurance drone for all-weather strategic missions, but it can also be armed if necessary.
Equipped with cameras, as well as other cutting-edge technology such as automated taxi-takeoff and landing, it is much less expensive than putting a jet fighter and pilot up in the air.
Reports suggest that these new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are far more advanced than the existing inventory in terms of anti-jamming.
While the initial plan was to lease the latest drones, New Delhi later decided to buy them instead, and move forward with “Project Cheetah.”
Under the project, the Israeli Herons will be upgraded to undertake specialized and longer surveillance missions and precision strikes, News18.com reported.
When Project Cheetah is finalized, the Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Heron TP UAVs in the inventory of the Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF) will not just be upgraded with advanced satellite communication and sensors for longer surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but are also likely to be armed with air-to-ground missiles and laser-guided munitions for precision strikes.
Under the emergency procurement provisions, the Indian Navy also leased two MQ-9B Sea Guardian UAVs from the United States last year to bolster its maritime surveillance capabilities.
At the same time, India is developing indigenous technology to thwart the growing threats from China’s military on the country’s borders, according to Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
In a MyBigPlunge.com report, Shah said the best technology available in the world will be used for border security.
“It is the government’s commitment. To meet the threat of drones, [we] are working on an anti-drone defense system,” he said.
Addressing Border Security Forces, he stressed: “You are the ones who secure the country. The nation is proud of you. For the Modi government, the meaning of border security is national security. So remember, you are not just securing the borders but giving the nation an opportunity to secure its position in the world.”
The Ladakh standoff has entered its second winter with additional deployments being made in the eastern sector as well.
Last month, India and China held the 14th round of military-level talks to negotiate disengagement. But the discussions appear to have made little progress.
Media reports have also revealed that China has built up infrastructure, including a high-tech fiber-optic network at remote locations of the western Himalayas. This would give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near-real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in the area.
China’s Global Times newspaper said that frontline troops at the border are preparing “logistics for the upcoming winter” with new, specially designed high-altitude clothing.
The state-run newspaper also said “facilities to improve the living and working conditions of officers and soldiers” have boosted the morale of PLA forces in the high-altitude region.
Still, a China Factor report in late November showed that things are heating up in eastern Ladakh.
Amid the ongoing border tensions between India and China, Global Times reported that the PLA conducted live-fire drills.
Monitoring activity along what is known as the Line of Actual Control or LAC will obviously be the priority for Heron-TP missions.
Developed by the Israel Aerospace Industries, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an upgrade from the existing Heron UAVs, expanding its versatility as a platform to cater to the demands of international customers.
The new Heron has been exported to countries including Greece and Germany. However, its original variant has been much more successful, which is being operated by more than 10 countries.
Additionally, Boeing Neptune anti-submarine warfare aircraft from the Indian Navy will also be deployed to eastern Ladakh to conduct reconnaissance.
India has also been looking to buy 30 MQ-9B High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) armed drones from the US, 10 for each of the defence services, costing a total of US$3 billion.
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met General Atomics CEO Vivek Lall whose company manufactures the armed Predator drones, News18.com reported.
Sources say there will be further discussions with the US on the transfer of technology aspect before the deal is sealed.