Aero India-2021 was the first international aerospace and defence exhibition of the new decade and marked a welcome return to large format defence shows despite the COVID-19 pandemic. The 13 th edition of the airshow, held at Air Force Station Yelahanka also marked the 25 th year of the show, since the first formal edition was held in 1996. According to the organisers, more than 16,000 visitors attended Aero India and latest edition had more than 60 aircraft on static display.
While foreign participation was largely muted due to pandemic related restrictions in their home countries, Indian domestic firms were out in force at the airshow. In all 523 registered exhibitors across 449 Indian exhibitors and 74 foreign exhibitors participated in the airshow. “As I said that Aero India – 2021 is expected to boost the growth of Indian Aerospace and Defence sector and promote India as a preferred manufacturing destination globally. It may attract more FDI, increase indigenisation, improve employment opportunities in defence sector and promote exports furthering the cause of “Atmanirbhar Bharat or Self-reliant India” initiative,” Raj Kumar, Secretary, Defence Production said on the inaugural day of the show.
Among the highlights of the show, were the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Dassault Rafale F3-Rs and Boeing AH-64E Apache, CH-47I helicopters making their Aero India debuts as did the combined flight display of the IAF Suryakiran aerobatic team along with the Sarang Helicopter Display Team. There was a flypast on the inaugural day, by a US Air Force B-1B Lancer heavy bomber. The aircraft belonged to the 28 th Bomb Wing based out of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota. A supersonic heavy bomber, the B-1B Lancer carries the largest conventional payload of both guided and unguided weapons in the USAF.
The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) also undertook an ‘Atmanirbhar Formation’ flight comprising of a LCA Tejas trainer, Hindustan Turbo Trainer 40 (HTT-40) basic trainer aircraft, Hindustan Jet Trainer 36 (HJT 36) Intermediate Jet Trainer, Advanced Hawk Mk132 Advanced Jet Trainer and Civil Dornier Do-228. HAL’s rotorcraft prowess was also showcased with flying displays of its Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Dhruv, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH). In fact, the central theme of the India Pavilion was indigenous rotarywing capability with HAL’s LUH as the centrepiece.
Futuristic Combat Air Teaming System
HAL certainly pulled of the surprise of the show with its Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) concept based on Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). Conceived by HAL to cater to the needs of the future battlefield, the CATS concept, involves manned aircraft closely operating with a variety of unmanned assets to dramatically enhance their battlefield effectiveness. “The CATS programme integrates various indigenous capabilities available in the country to offer the futuristic solution to the Indian Armed Forces,” Arup Chatterjee, Director (Engineering and R&D) HAL told Geopolitics.
The Tejas aircraft has been chosen to perform the role of Mothership for AirTeaming eXploitation or CATS-MAX making use of embedded air teaming intelligence concepts to demonstrate the fully integrated as well as autonomous wingman platforms and swarming of drones used to complete missions.The CATS-MAX aircraft will be the central element for executing and controlling CATS missions and will likely be a two-seater variant of Tejas equipped with additional command and control interfaces for this purpose along with the integration of an indigenously developed data-link for the aircraft to communicate and control with its unmanned assets.
Perhaps the most ambitious of the CATS concepts is the impressive looking CATS Warrior Unmanned Wingman. The low observable unmanned aircraft can not only be controlled from CATS-MAX but will also be capable of autonomous operation with a radius of action of 350km. CATS Warrior will take-off from a runway and operate alongside CATS-MAX aircraft but can also be used a long-range strike missile with a range of 700km. CATS Warrior was showcased with an internal weapons bay. The planned powerplant for the armed low observable unmanned aircraft is HAL’s PTAE-7 engine, which will be upgraded substantially for use on CATS Warrior. The PTAE-7 engine is used on the Lakshya target drone.
Other components of the mannedunmanned teaming system include, CATS-Hunter a multi-purpose explosive carrier system which can be launched from CATS MAX for striking ground targets. It can be operated as a glider after launch, allowing it to travel an additional distance, thereby increasing the range of existing weaponry it carries. CATS Air Launched Flexible Assets (ALFA) are swarming UAVs being jointly developed by by HAL and Newspace Research and Technologies Pvt. Ltd, a Bengaluru based start-up. The ALFA’s are swarming UAVs which work together as a swarm of weaponised drones to attack a surface target in a coordinated manner. CATS ALFA’s can not only be launched from CATS MAX but also from CATS Warrior.
Also being considered for integration as part of the CATS concept will be High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). These UAVs will carry a variety of sophisticated sensor payloads to undertake ISR missions. Based on their mission, they will also be tasked with carrying weapons. HAL also states that is looking at CATS Infinity, which will be a solar powered UAV with the ability to operate at very high altitudes for surveillance and communication.
Tejas order marks HAL high
The inaugural day of Aero India witnessed the long-awaited order for 83 Tejas aircraft split across 73 Mk-1A single seat aircraft and 10 Mk-1 twin-seat trainers worth approximately ₹48,000 crore. In addition to orders for Tejas, HAL also received a Request for Proposal (RFP) from the Indian Air Force (IAF) for 70 HTT-40 trainers, marking the start of a process towards a formal order for the homegrown basic trainer. also handed over the first maritime variants of the Dhruv Mk-III to the Indian Navy (3 nos), Coast Guard (2 nos) and HAL received Initial Operational Clearance for the Army version of the LUH.
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