TAPAS Stumbles, Hermes Soars: Israel’s Role in India’s Drone Ambitions


Team Udayavani, Feb 15, 2024, 8:56 AM IST

Facing a backlash for not creating a sophisticated drone that fulfils the Indian military’s needs, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the premier agency under the Department of Defence Research and Development in the Ministry of Defence of the Government of India, has been working to recover the initiative that has seen an investment of approximately ₹1,800 crore over the past 13 years.

Since February 2011, TAPAS BH-201, a Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) drone, formerly referred to as the Rustom-II, has been in the works at the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment in Bangalore, with its initial test flight taking place in 2016. However, the project recently encountered a setback when the armed forces decided to abandon it, stating that the drone was incapable of meeting the necessary criteria even after years of development.

Stats of MALE Drone

In the context of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance drones can operate at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet (9,000 metres) and cover ranges exceeding 200 kilometres. Their endurance allows them to stay airborne for extended periods, making them suitable for surveillance, reconnaissance and other missions without human pilots on board. Their endurance time varies depending upon the specific model and design. Typically, MALE drones can fly for extended durations—often ranging from 24 hours to 48 hours. However, there are notable exceptions.

The TAPAS drone had the following features: It could carry up to 350 kg (772 lb) of equipment, was 9.5 metres (31 feet 2 inches) long and had a wingspan of 20.6 metres (67 feet 7 inches). It weighed 1,800 kg (3,968 lb) without any cargo. Initially, it used two NPO-Satum 36T engines, each producing 74.57 kW (100 hp). But later models had two VRDE engines, each generating 160 kW (220 hp). It flew with a 3-blade propeller that could adjust its speed. In terms of performance, it could reach a top speed of 224 km/h (139 mph), travel up to 1,000 km (620 miles) without stopping for fuel, stay in the air for 18 hours and fly up to 8,500 metres (28,000 feet) high.

Project Closes Down

TAPAS was a major project by DRDO, which aimed to build 76 such drones—60 for the Indian Army, 4 for the Indian Navy and 12 for the Indian Air Force. In July 2022, Armenia showed interest in buying the TAPAS BH-201 model. But media sources indicate that the TAPAS project was closed down even though the drone had flown about 200 times. This was because it did not fulfil the initial quality requirements (PSQRs) set by the military.

The TAPAS drone managed to reach a maximum height of 28,000 feet, falling short of the 30,000 feet target set for it. It could fly for 18 hours, which was 2 hours fewer than the required 20-hour flight time. The design of the drone made it difficult for DRDO to improve its performance. Also, not having the right turboprop engine led to a standstill for DRDO. This suggests that the shortcomings in performance were significant. The discrepancies were too large to be rectified.

‘Freeze Configuration’

The team behind the drone has been instructed to “freeze the configuration”, which means to finalize the current capabilities of the weapons system for the necessary certification to deem it fit for flight. This is because it is believed that work on a project cannot go on forever without setting a deadline for its completion. The developers have reached out to the DRDO’s Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification, which is in charge of giving airworthiness certificates. They will test four key areas—how the drone moves through the air, its control systems, its engines and its structure—for certification.

A senior official in the defence ministry emphasised that there comes a point when the development of a platform must be concluded, solidifying its features and setup. This allows for future strategies to be formulated. The official noted the Indian Navy’s keenness to deploy the TAPAS drone for monitoring activities over the Andaman Islands. However, the navy’s implementation plan is contingent upon the drone receiving a certification of airworthiness.

The media has reported that ending the TAPAS project is a significant setback for local capabilities in this crucial aspect of modern warfare. While the exact financial loss from closing the project has not been disclosed, some social media posts are blaming the military for the shutdown.

However, the DRDO must acknowledge that, with the defence industry now open to private companies, the era of significant delays, overspending and delivering below-par products to the armed forces is coming to an end. This change is underscored by the recommendations from the government-appointed K Vijay Raghavan Committee, which suggests a major overhaul of the DRDO and greater involvement of the private sector in defence research.

Heron Mark-II UAVs

Recognizing that the TAPAS BH-201 might not become operational, the Indian Army recently acquired four Heron Mark-II UAVs equipped with satellite communication from Israel. This acquisition is in addition to India’s purchase of 31 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones, which are armed and come from the United States.

The Indian Navy is set to receive 15 of these high-altitude, long-endurance drones, produced by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, while the Indian Army and Indian Air Force will each obtain eight. The agreement also covers the supply of 170 AGM-114R Hellfire missiles, 310 laser-guided small-diameter bombs, various communication and surveillance tools and a precision-guided bomb designed for use with the MQ-9B drones.

The Drishti 10 Starliner

The main reason for discontinuing the TAPAS BH-201 drone project seems to be the introduction of the ‘Make in India’ Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) drone, the Drishti 10 Starliner UAV. This is a domestically developed UAV based on the Elbit Hermes 900 MALE (Medium Altitude Long Range) platform.

Earlier reports have mentioned that, on January 10, 2024, Admiral Hari Kumar, Chief of the Naval Staff, accepted the first Drishti 10 Starliner, obtained through an emergency purchase process. There is a partnership between Adani Defence and Aerospace and Israeli company Elbit to produce the Hermes 900 drone in Hyderabad. In March 2023, India placed an order for four of these drones, dividing them equally between the Army and the Navy, for joint production by Elbit and Adani Defence and Aerospace.

The Hermes 900 Features

The drone is operated by two people from the ground. It can carry a payload of up to 450 kg (990 lb). It measures 8.3 metres (27 feet 3 inches) in length with a wingspan of 15 metres (49 feet 3 inches). Its total weight is 1,100 kg (2,425 lb) and it is powered by a single Rotax 916 engine producing 160 kW (210 hp). In terms of performance, the drone can reach a top speed of 220 km/h (140 mph, 120 knots), has a cruising speed of 112 km/h (70 mph, 60 knots), can fly for up to 30 hours and has a maximum operating altitude of 9,100 metres (30,000 feet).

Currently, Adani Aerospace and Defence is responsible for producing the airframe of the Drishti 10 Starliner UAV. It is anticipated that Elbit from Israel will eventually transfer the technology for the Hermes 900, aiming to make the Drishti 10 Starliner a genuinely indigenous product. This move is expected to shift its classification from merely being ‘assembled in India’ or ‘manufactured under licence’ to ‘fully indigenous’.

Article by: Girish Linganna
Aerospace & Defence Analyst

(The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: [email protected])

Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions expressed in this article are solely those of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Udayavani. The publication holds no legal responsibility for the content presented.

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