Indian national media confirms that Indian Air Force (IAF) has deployed four Heron MK II drones in the Northern sector for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. The closer examination of this platform is necessary to understand its potential to fill the capability gap in the IAF and its possible impacts in the region.
India purchased Heron MK II drones from Israeli firm Israel Aerospace Industries because IAF already operates scores of Israel made drones in varying capacities. Israel displayed its mock design at the Singapore Airshow in 2020 for the first time while this platform is in operation with nearly twenty military organizations around the world including India. IAI Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Military Aircraft Group, Moshe Levy noted that the systems can operate over land and sea which makes it a versatile platform.
Performance and Technical Data
|Overall Length||8.5 m|
|Loiter Speed||60-80 KTAS|
|Maximum Speed||140 KT|
|Service Ceiling||35000 ft|
|Payload Capacity||490 Kg approx|
|Maximum Take off Weight||1400 kg approx|
|Design||Fixed Wing-Twin Tail-Pusher Propeller|
|Engine||4 Cylinder-Turbocharged-4 Stroke Rotax 915|
|Range Line of Sight (LOS)||250 km|
|Range Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS)||1000 km|
The Heron MK II is a standard Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) capable of operating in any weather conditions, day and night, at sub-zero to higher temperatures. It does not require any specific runway for landing as it can smoothly function under all conditions i.e unpaved and high-altitude runways. Its retractable undercarriage carrying single wheen nose unit and two wheel landing gear adds to its above mentioned strengths.
Heron MK II is capable of undertaking diverse missions and roles. Primarily, the drone is designed for ISTAR roles (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) in support of air and naval operators. Its range of onboard systems enable it to operate in complex and data intensive environment to extract significant intelligence and undertake real-time data interception, data analysis, and disruptive roles against sophisticated communication networks. Its fundamental strength of detection and time-critical analysis makes it a potent machine to dominate tactical and strategic battlefields covering a wide range of frequencies.
In addition to ISTAR missions, it can act in support of manned aircrafts in Electronic Warfare roles by using its Integrated Electronic Warfare & Protection Suite. This not only enhances the survivability of Heron MK II drones to operate in a full-spectrum threat environment but to ensure survivability of other aerial platforms integrated in the system. It can also operate in air defense roles like manned aircraft in a strict combat setting. Its laser sight capability can illuminate hostile aircrafts for strike fighters to engage and hit from beyond visual ranges.
This electronic suite is deemed to be capable of defending against surface-to-air and air-to-air weapon systems through jamming and decoying. Wing Commander Pankaj Rana, the commanding officer of the drone squadron, claimed that “The drone simply amalgamates into the Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance matrix of the Indian Air Force,”
In combat mission roles, the UCAV can carry 470 kg of special purpose payload for all time, all weather, all temperature missions. It can carry air-to-air, air-to-land, anti-ship and anti-tank missiles of varying ranges to shoot tens of kilometers away without crossing the border. This establishes its capacity to operate from stand-off ranges as it has the Beyond Line of Sight radius of 1000 km.
These drones are operated from a fifth generation Ground Control Station called Unified Control Station.
The diverse mission profile of Heron MK II depends on the range of onboard systems that make it a versatile UCAV in Indian inventory. It has onboard Electro Optical and Infra-red radars and sensors along with Electronic Intelligence and Communication Intelligence. It enables it to detect, track and geolocate the target from longer ranges while gathering signal and communication intelligence.
This drone is specifically designed to build an Electronic Order of Battle through complex signal formats, evasive radiation footprint, and dense communication environment. This Electronic Order of Battle enables Heron MK II to provide early warning, time-critical intelligence, and electronic countermeasures for survivability. ELTA Family of jammers and sensors on board develops a self-defense mode against aerial and surface missile threats. To efficiently integrate all elements on board, the UAV carries an onboard server for data storage, procession and transmission.
India initially intended to get Heron MK II drones from Israel under a three-year lease agreement worth $200 million but later moved on to make an off-the shelf purchase under Project Cheetah. Under this project, India plans to procure 90 Heron MK II drones from Israel for its tri-services with diverse laser guided weapon configuration i.e. air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship and anti-tank missiles.
The addition of Heron MK II to Indian inventory is visible value addition. It is worth noting here that these four drones handed over to India are not equipped with armament and both parties are to work on weapon configuration in the coming months. Israel Aerospace Industries President and CEO Boaz Levy commented on the deal in January 2023 saying “The deal is a testament to our customers’ strong satisfaction with the Heron UAVs, including their operational and technical performance. Our customers repeatedly choose the Heron for its broad range of intelligence collection missions in different ground and weather settings,.”
All of these four Heron MK II drones are deployed at a forward airbase, possibly Ladakh, in Northern India. The media news claimed that the drones will be used against China for ISR purposes but the capabilities of drones speak otherwise. This drone can stay in the air for 36 hours with beyond visual range of up to 1000 km means it can run surveillance over the entire India in a single sortie. This, by-default gives India a capacity to simultaneously keep a distant eye on aerial activity in Chinese and Pakistani borders. When integrated with Indian communication satellites and IAF network of radars, sensors and signals, it becomes a potent platform in Indian inventory.
The purpose of the report is to present an unbiased and strictly scientific overview of the Heron MK II drone. It does not comment on how the drone will enhance capabilities of IAF and impact the security landscape of Pakistan. In manner, this report uses deep research of open-source data to build an overview of what Heron MK II is. All of its capabilities represent the claims by Israel Aerospace Industries and it is yet to be proved in actual combat. Additionally, the drones do not come with armaments. It is unclear whether India builds indigenous missiles to integrate with the UCAV or not because Israel does not sell missiles with drones and offer drones for ISR roles. The Editor of Defense Analytica attempted to contact the Israel Aerospace Industries in this regard for more details but did not receive any answer by the time of writing.