Aero India 2021 was held from the 3rd of February to the 5th, and amidst the great aircraft on display, emerging technologies, airshows and weapons, few things caught as much attention as the new family of CATS (Combat Air Teaming System) drones. So what are these drones? And what do they entail for the Indian aerospace industry?
Cometh the Machines:
HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) has revealed these three aerial vehicles: Warrior, Hunter and ALFA-S under its CATS division. CATS stands for Combat Air Teaming System and are being developed in conjunction with private sector companies under various projects. The ALFA-S drone is not new (revealed in 2019 Aero India as part of the Jaguar MAX program) but the other two are.
The first of these new drones is the Warrior. The drone has a rather remarkable similarity to the Loyal Wingman program of Boeing Australia, the Russian GROM and the XQ-58A Valkyrie (semi-stealth with a trapezoidal fuselage, chined engine, V-tail and s-shaped intake). But physical similarities aside, the drone seems to be geared towards different missions.
Like the Boeing program, the Warrior is supposed to work in groups alongside ‘mothership’ manned aircraft (Su30MKIs and Rafales for certain – twin seater jets allow for greater flexibility) and will be geared primarily towards strike roles. However, the system shall first be integrated with the LCA Tejas variants, according to the sources.
Indeed, the Warrior was showcased with weapon bays with DRDO’s Smart Anti Airfield Weapon (a standoff glide bomb). Later, pictures emerged of the Warrior with the in development NGCCW (next generation close combat weapon) – an ASRAAM lookalike close range heatseeking missile, but it is not known if the missile will be used with the Warrior.
Presumably the Warrior can also be used for ISR roles (Intelligence, Surveillance and Recce) but unlike the Boeing drone, which featured swappable nose sections for various payloads, modularity doesn’t seem to be a part of the Warrior – at the moment.
The CATS Warrior will be powered by two PTAE-7 jet turbofans, which are already mature products in use with the Lakshya target drone.
CATS HUNTER :
The second drone showcased is the Hunter, which seems to be a long range loitering cruise missile system.
Not much info is available about this air breathing cruise missile, but reports indicate it’ll be in the same league of weapons like the Israeli Delilah and MBDA’s SCALP.
The ALFA S is a switchblade mass swarm drone system being developed by HAL and New Space Research & Technology and upto four will be carried in one pylon. Networked together, they can be used as smart hunter killers to deal with all kinds of targets, from massed AD assets to armor and bunkers.
The deep interest expressed by the IAF in these programs suggests that the air force is looking at leapfrogging in terms of local technology to the cutting edge in the unmanned segment, and makes for an interesting space for future development.
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