Jointly Developed India-US Air Launched UAV Prototype to Take Flight by End of Year

Aero India, Aero India 2023

New Delhi. In a massive boost to Indo-US defence ties, India and the US have moved ahead to jointly develop air launched unmanned aerial vehicles that will be used for surveillance missions, with first flight of the prototype likely to take place by the end of this year.

This move comes amid growing Sino-US tension over the Chinese balloons being shot down by US as they flew over US and the prevailing tension on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) along the Sino-Indian border.

The Air Launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (ALUAV) program is taking place under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and a critical factor is that the intellectual property (IP) rights for the new system will be jointly shared by the two sides.

The Air-Launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicle prototype, being jointly developed by India and the United States, could enter the flight testing phase by September 2023.

A Project Agreement (PA) for this was inked by Ministry of Defence and US Department of Defence under the Joint Working Group Air Systems in the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) on July 30, 2021. The PA for ALUAV falls under the Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation (RDT&E) Memorandum of Agreement between Ministry of Defence and US Department of Defence, which was first signed in January 2006 and renewed in January 2015. The agreement is a significant step towards deepening defence technology collaboration between the two nations through co-development of defence equipment.

The main aim of DTTI is to bring sustained leadership focus to promote collaborative technology exchange and create opportunities for co-production and co-development of future technologies for Indian and US military forces. Under DTTI, Joint Working Groups on land, naval, air, and aircraft carrier technologies have been established for focus on mutually agreed projects in respective domains. The PA for co-development of ALUAV has been overseen by the Joint Working Group on Air Systems and is a major accomplishment for DTTI.

The PA outlines the collaboration between Air Force Research Laboratory, Indian Air Force, and Defence Research and Development Organisation towards design, development, demonstration, testing and evaluation of systems to co-develop an ALUAV Prototype. The Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) at DRDO and the Aerospace Systems Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), along with the Indian and US Air Forces, are the principal organisations for execution of PA.

The agreement was signed by the co-chairs of the Joint Working Group Air Systems under DTTI, Assistant Chief of Air Staff for Plans Air Vice Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari from the Indian Air Force and Director, Air Force Security Assistance and Cooperation Directorate Brigadier General Brian R. Bruckbauer from the US Air Force.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Aero India 2023, Major General Julian C Cheater, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of the US Air Force, International Affairs, said: “With regards to the air-launched UAV, we are expecting that we will conduct flight-testing as early as the fall of 2023. That will occur over a range in northern India as well as the United States. Originally, we will develop the sensors on that package. We expect that the UAV will be launched from a C-130J aircraft. This is a seven-year project arrangement. That signifies a long-term agreement and also involves sharing technology. That is an agreed step in the relationship.”

Major General Cheater’s remarks come at a time when the United States is exploring avenues to co-produce and co-develop with India in the defence sector.

Major General Cheater said, “As democracies bookending the Indo-Pacific, the United States and India share a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. That shared vision is strengthened by world-class events like Aero India, where we are able to engage in person to increase trust and understanding.”

Talking about how India-US ties were stronger now, he said: “The United States does more military exercises with India than with any other country. That is just one example of the importance of that relationship and why India was designated as a defence partner.”

Earlier, Ambassador A Elizabeth Jones, the head of the US delegation to Aero India 2023, highlighted the growing diplomatic and security cooperation between India and the US over the last year ‘show that the strategic partnership is one of our most consequential relationships’.

Ambassador Jones said, “India and the United States are working together in so many ways to ensure a free and open, prosperous, connected, and resilient Indo-Pacific region, where our democracies can thrive. As partners, we’re working together to address climate change; improve global health and prepare for new pandemics; cooperate on cyber challenges; build quality infrastructure; and ensure sustainable supply chains.  We’re strengthening our cooperation on critical technologies, from space components to semiconductors.”

Sources said that the operational and technical requirements for the air launched system have been finalised and the project agreement is under the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Indian Air Force, and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The air launched drones are likely to be tested from C 130J aircraft in service with the air force, with first trials set to take place before the end of 2023. The aircraft has been used in the past by US forces to deploy air launched UAV systems like the Gremlin Air Vehicles that can both be launched and recovered mid-air.

It is learnt that final discussions to freeze the technical parameters took place at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, with the US Co-Chair of the joint working group, Brig Gen Joel W Safranek overseeing discussions with an Indian Air Force representative. Indian start-up company NewSpace Research and Technologies, which is already working on swarm drone technology for Indian forces was also part of the meetings.

This is the first UAV project under which common IP rights will be generated, giving the Indian ecosystem a significant technology boost. Besides this, two more projects for counter drone systems and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance platform are being finalised under the DTTI.

According to media reports, senior US government officials had said last year that the two countries are moving ahead to a new phase of defence cooperation and hurdles of the past when it came to transfer of technology and bureaucratic red tape are being addressed.