Project Cheetah: India locks a deal to buy 4 Heron-TP drones from Israel, to be weapon armed for tactical missions

NEW DELHI: In its persistent efforts to modernise the Indian armed forces, New Delhi has signed a $200 mn deal to buy four Heron-TP drones from Israel, which are most likely to be deployed along LAC as tension continues to simmer between India and China.

The procured drones are to be initially used for strategic and longer reconnaissance and surveillance missions and later be upgraded and armed with weapons like air to ground missiles and laser-guided bombs, as per defence sources.

The purchase deal has come amid a recently made announcement by Indian defence establishment to revive its ambitious “Project Cheetah” after hanging in there for a long time.

The drones are likely to arrive by the end of this year. Initially, the plan was to lease these drones from Israel for three years but later the government decided to buy them instead considering the long time operational requirement of such drones on northern borders.

What exactly is Project Cheetah?

Project Cheetah is a nearly 5000 crore venture to upgrade the drones in use with Indian armed forces to enable them in carrying out offensive operations against the adversaries.

Under this project, 90 Heron drones of tri services are slated to be upgraded with advanced snooping capabilities and weapon armed with laser-guided bombs, air to ground and air-launched anti-tank guided missiles. The project was initially launched by IAF in 2013 and was subsequently, adopted by the other two arms as well.


Heron-TP ( also known as Eitan) MALE(medium-altitude, long-endurance) drone, that will be procured through this deal is an advanced version of the Heron 1 UAV developed by the MALAT division of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to meet multiple mission requirements of the armed forces. (Indian forces presently have an inventory of around 90 Heron 1 UAV drones).

Video of Heron TP drone released by Israel Aerospace Industries

Heron-TP variant was unveiled by IAI during the Paris Air Show held in June 2007. Eitan, comes with the capability to carry multiple payloads and perform multiple missions such as COMINT, SIGINT and IMINT (image intelligence) or SAR and communications relay.

Powered by a 1,200 HP turboprop engine Heron TP can fly up to an altitude of 45,000ft , at a maximum speed of 220 knots with an endurance of approximately 36 hours.

Heron TP system is capable of carrying out surveillance and reconnaissance missions, damage assessment in battles, mid-air refuelling, target procurement, intelligence gathering, and missile defence operations.

The UAV possesses a maximum take-off weight of 5,300kg. It can transmit data at a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) range of more than 1000 km using SATCOM which makes it capable of gathering intelligence far away from enemy fire and without crossing borders.

The GPS-enabled Heron can be controlled either manually from the ground control station or through autonomous mode. It is fully equipped with automatic launch and recovery (ALR) system which helps in automatic safe landing during communication failure with the ground station“, as revealed through defence sources.

Why India is strengthening it’s drone inventory?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or commonly called “drones” holds a predominant position in modern-day warfare due to the ever-evolving wartime scenarios as well as the requirement of a robust support system for the armed forces. Keeping these things in mind, India is on a streak to modernise its drone inventory by making strategic acquisitions as well as by making necessary upgrades in technologies.

Military drones of today are primarily used for three purposes – logistical support, surveillance and reconnaissance missions , tactical & precision strikes. Chinese PLA have been utilising their drone inventory for providing logistical support to their army sitting at Himalayan heights as well as for surveillance missions along LAC and over South China Sea and that made India to pursue a more focused approach in strengthening it’s drone inventory.

When it comes to surveillance missions, drones are often considered the precise way to snoop across borders without putting any human lives at risk as they can simply hover or stand by from a pretty far distance while surveilling a target 24/7 by providing real-time updates to the drone operator, in addition to tracing targets using different methods, such as infrared and motion-tracking. Drones are being preferred in theatres of conflicts as they can strike with pinpoint accuracy inflicting maximum damage with a minimum loss, unlike manned airstrikes.

A great degree of indigenous capacity development is also going on with the acquisition of mini and micro drones, including swarm drones from Indian firms- Raphe mPhibr and New Space technologies. A top-secret “CATS Warrior” project of HAL and DRDOs “Rustom” drones are also in progress to make India battle-ready for carrying out tactical missions in future.

New Delhi is also in talks with Washington to procure at least 30 MQ-9 Reaper drones,10 each for its three services to give itself a strategic advantage by diversifying its drone inventory.

India is finally making timely strides in this direction to accustom itself to possible wartime scenarios that see a greater role of such UAV systems in winning battles, as the world had already witnessed in the US mission in Afghanistan, Syria and also in the Nagorno-Karabakh battle last year.

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