AURA: India's UCAV Programme

Deep inside a non-descript building in Bangalore’s Vimanapura area, Indian military scientists are working hard to define the country’s first unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), one of India’s least known government-sponsored defence programmes. Still classified and “off the books”, the programme is steeped in conceptualizing a robotic drone aircraft that can autonomously seek, identify and destroy targets with on-board guided weapons.

According to information made available for the first time, the project has a typically evasive name – AURA, for Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft. But the working title of the drone aircraft itself leaves nothing to the imagination – Indian Unmanned Strike Aircraft Programme (IUSAP). In other words, a pilotless bomber.

The AURA programme is currently under the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), and led by aerospace scientist Biju Uthup, who has worked with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas) programme in several capacities. Sources reveal that the AURA team is currently conducting a detailed feasibility study of possible parameters under which the aircraft will finally be built. The plan is to develop the IUSAP as a tactical stealth aircraft built largely with composites, and capable of delivering laser-guided strike weapons.

Air Marshal (Retd) Tej Asthana, India’s first Strategic Forces commander says, “We must encourage the programme, and ensure that it stays as Indian as possible. We cannot import UCAVs. It is important for us to have a programme like this to get us in line with the best in the world.”

The AURA programme is, to be fair, still only a concept, and therefore well behind a large number of global combat drone programmes that are either fully operational or near, the most famous of them being the American MQ-1 Predator hunter-killer drone that has garnered a fearsome name for itself as America’s weapon of choice along the Durand Line.

“It would have been prudent if we had started a programme like this 20 years ago,” says Air Marshal (Retd) Padamjit Ahluwalia, who once headed the Air Force’s sword arm Western Air Command. “This is an aircraft that will use artificial intelligence for actual weapon delivery. It is a great thing that it is indigenous, because believe me, no country that has this technology will give it to us. We must make sure we get the sensors and weapons bang-on.”

The parameters of the IUSAP, like range, cruising altitude and sensor/weapon specifications are still unknown, and probably still undefined. Another element that will need thorough working out is the degree of autonomy such an aircraft can be given. For instance, all attack decisions on the American Predators operating in Pakistan are taken by ground controllers.

Former Air Force Chief, FH Major says, “We could have the finest autonomous pilotless vehicles. But that last minute decision to go for the target, abandon or reframe a mission will be difficult for a UCAV. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have huge scope.”

India currently operates unarmed Israel-built drones restricted to surveillance and intelligence-gathering duties, and has ordered a limited number of Harop loitering "kamikaze drones" from the same source. For the AURA programme, there are several challenges still ahead apart from the flying vehicle itself. These include on-board electronics, sensors, guidance systems, and of course, strike weapons that can be used on the platform.

With government funds to be spent on the AURA programme, there are seasoned skeptics as well. Former Air Force Chief, S Krishnaswamy, who flew combat missions in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, “Such research is definitely necessary, but the more we venture into unknown areas the greater the risk of time and cost overruns. We should ask ourselves if such a systems fits in with our requirement at this time. There should be safeguards to ensure it doesn’t turn into another joke like the Light Combat Aircraft.”

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