India’s Rustom MALE UAV: A Step Forward – Or Back?
November 18/16: The first flight of India’s Rustom-II UAV has been successfully completed . Conducted by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the drone accomplished all main objectives during the test, including takeoff, bank, level flight, and landing. While this marks a good milestone for the program, officials maintain that a lot more evaluation and testing needs to be done before operational evaluation and eventual entry into service with India’s military branches can take place.
India has not been left out of the global UAV push. The country operates Israeli Searcher tactical UAVs, and Heron Medium Altitude, Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs, placing an additional Heron order in 2005. It has also undertaken development programs for a smaller UAV, the “Nishant”. With its “Rustom” program, however, India hopes to offer a UAV in the Heron/ Predator/ Watchkeeper class of MALE UAVs.
It had also hoped to begin to change a culture and tradition of wholly state-owned development of military hardware, which has not always performed well, or served India’s needs. A recent award has selected a winner, and moved the project forward. It may also serve as a reminder that bureaucracies are very difficult to change.
The Rustom family of UAVs
“Rustom” translates as “warrior,” and may remind some readers of the great hero in Persia’s classic The Shah-nameh. Reports indicate that India’s UAV is named after a more contemporary personality, however: Rustom Damania, a former professor of IISc, Bangalore, who led the National Aeronautical Laboratories’ light canard research aircraft (LCRA) project in the 1980s.
The LCRA is reportedly the initial basis for the DRDO ADE’s 1,100-1,800 kg UAV design, which aims for a maximum altitude of 35,000 feet and a range of 300 km/ 240 miles, with endurance around 24 hours. This will be the Rustom-C/H, with the “C” variant expected to carry weapons as well as surveillance gear.
A lighter “Rustom-1” looks more like Burt Rutan’s Long-EZ design, with canards up front, winglets on a squared delta wing, and a pusher propeller in back. It will act as a test platform, and could fill a tactical UAV slot, with endurance of only 12-14 hours, maximum altitude of 22,000 feet, and a range of around 250 km.
Procurement & the Private Sector: India’s Struggles
In some ways, Rustom’s naming is also a fine encapsulation of India’s defense industry struggles. Given the sensitive nature of defence projects, private firms have generally been limited to step-and-fetch roles as component suppliers or sub-contractors on projects designed and managed by state-owned agencies or firms such as DRDO, NAL, HAL, BEL, et. al. Many of those projects have fared poorly, leaving India with gaps in critical defense capabilities that then had to be filled by buying foreign equipment as a “temporary” measure. Which would frequently become permanent mainstays for India’s forces.
In 2002, India took the first steps toward changing its procurement model. It opened up defence equipment production to private sector companies, and even allowed up to 26% foreign direct investment in such ventures. In 2006, “India’s DRDO Rethinking the Way it Does Business” covered changes in government statements, and even grudging DRDO admissions that more private sector involvement was necessary, if India’s industry was to develop and deliver the equipment a rising power needs. Subsequent moves by the government on a number of fronts, from aircraft to tanks, are opening up a far larger role for global defense firms in supplying India’s needs.
The problem is that bureaucracies are entirely uninterested in changing their long-standing and comfortable models, especially if those changes promise reduced future roles for those bureaucracies. Domestic development remains largely the bailiwick of existing agencies and bureaucracies. In those competitions so far, Indian firms partnered with experienced foreign suppliers like Thales, IAI, et. al. continue to lose to state-owned Indian firms whose overall record in the sectors under competition is shallower, and arguably adds development risks to these projects.
That appears to have been the case with Rustom.
DRDO intended to move away from its traditional model of developing and finalizing the system itself, then handing the designs and technology over to a production agency. Instead, they would introduce concurrent engineering that involves the producing firm, and initial design efforts also take into consideration production issues. This production agency development partner (PADP) was whittled down from 23 firms to 4 finalists: Larsen and Toubro Ltd. (L&T), Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd., Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. – and a joint bid from state-owned firms Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Bharat Electronics.
The accompanying maritime patrol radars and electro-optical systems were expected to come from Israel, whose systems equip current UAVs and aircraft. The engine is also expected to come from a selection process, rather than being a product of new R&D.
So far, that’s an improvement. Unfortunately, Rustom’s reported contract structure is a fine illustration of the time and performance blindness that has crippled so many indigenous Indian efforts. LiveMint describes an agreement that involved INR 4 billion investment in prototypes and trials, over a decade or more. All in a field where major new designs are being fielded, now, in 2 year cycles – and where the capabilities India seeks already exist in several fielded platforms. One hopes that is a reporting error.
The Rustom development contract also contains no guarantee of an order from the armed forces once it is complete. That’s normal in India, and not unusual in many countries that used staged-gate approval processes for weapons. What’s unusual is the combination of no commitment plus partnership financing requirements, which is a poor fit for the private sector. The HAL official who confirmed these arrangements for LiveMint asked the logical question: “If there is no assurance of an order [and such a high investment target], why should the private industry come forward and invest?” Yet some firms did make that offer, in conjunction with experienced foreign partners. They lost to HAL, whose history of aviation production does not extend to UAVs of this size and complexity.
What is clear, is that India’s efforts to build up its private sector defense industry beyond a mere conduit for foreign firms’ industrial offset programs is off to a slow start. N.S. Sisodia, director general of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, is typically diplomatic in his survey of the broader situation. He is also correct:
“The process does take a little time. There are efforts made in DPP (the defence procurement procedure) to involve private industry. But I think much more can be done.”
Contracts & Key Events
November 18/16: The first flight of India’s Rustom-II UAV has been successfully completed. Conducted by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), the drone accomplished all main objectives during the test, including takeoff, bank, level flight, and landing. While this marks a good milestone for the program, officials maintain that a lot more evaluation and testing needs to be done before operational evaluation and eventual entry into service with India’s military branches can take place.
November 23/15: The long awaited death of India’s indigenous Nishat UAV program has come to pass. The final of four UAVs in use by the Army has crashed less than a week after the program was officially cancelled. The final nail in the program’s coffin occurred earlier this month after a third UAV crashed amid technical problems cited by the Indian Army. However, these claims have been refuted by the Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO), who claim army incompetence and poor handling by the army. While the blame game continues, we do know that we won’t be seeing any more Nishats in the Indian sky.
November 18/15: The Indian Army has decided to cancel a two decade long indigenous Nishant UAV program after the third of four in use by the army crashed near the city of Jaisalmer on November 4. The Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) had been developing the Nishant UAV since 1995 with the aim of developing India’s own reconnaissance and intelligence gathering abilities. Phase 1 had seen four of the UAVs introduced in 2011 and continuation would have seen 8 more orders of the UAV by the army. The announcement comes shortly after Prime Minister Modi’s recent push to increase development within India’s private defense industry and the sharing of indigenously designed Rustom UAVs by the government. In the wake of the Nishant duds, these companies may be best served looking elsewhere for design ideas.
September 25/15: In a bid to spur development in the country’s private defense industry, the Modi government has decided to share designs of indigenously-developed unmanned aerial vehicles with private firms. Developed by the Indian state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation, details of the Rustom family of UAVs were until now kept secret from the private sector. As the Indian government looks to develop its defense industrial base domestically, it has also recently relaxed joint venture restrictions on foreign companies in a bid to build expertise through collaborative working. However, foreign companies still face stringent offset policies and investment restrictions, despite slow progress.
November 2013: Rustom-II. India Strategic quotes Honeywell Aerospace India President Pritam Bhavnani as saying that:
“As well as propulsion, our technology portfolio across these [American UAV] platforms spans electrical power systems, Auxiliary Power Units, navigation, air thermal systems, fuel controls, pneumatics, wheels and brakes and high integrity controls…. Rustom II is an exciting development in the evolution of India’s defence capabilities. I cannot give any specific details today regarding our involvement with the program…”
Sources: India Strategic, “Rustom II: An exciting opportunity for Honeywell”.
May 8/12: Test flight 14. India’s MoD:
“Indigenously designed and developed RUSTOM-1 made 14th successful flight this morning at Kolar with attainment of about 11,500 ft AGL (above ground level) and speed of above 140 Kmph during 2 hrs 10 minutes of cruise. It may be noted that this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developed by Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), a DRDO lab at Bangalore, had its maiden flight in Nov 2009. Mr. PS Krishnan, Director ADE stated that the flight was successful. All the parameters were achieved by the UAV which weigh around 690 Kg and the total performance was satisfactory.”
Nov 11/11: Test flight 5. India’s government announces that the 661 kg Rustom-1 UAV had made its 5th test flight, at 100 knots and 2,300 feet above ground level near Hosur. The release adds that: “This UAV can attain a maximum speed of 150 Knots, 22,000 ft of altitude and endurance of 12-15 Hours with an operating range of 250 Kms when fully developed.”
May 24/11: DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) has flown an upgraded version of “Rustom-1” from TAAL’s airfield near Hosur. It’s reported to be a converted manned aircraft, and the goal is an endurance of 14 hours and altitude ceiling of 8 km/ 26,000 feet. ADE reports it was happy with the flight, conducted as a precursor to flights with payloads. DNA India.
Prahlada, chief controller of research and development (aeronautics programme), said “with the successful accurate flying of Rustom 1, ADE is geared up for integration of payloads with the Aircraft within next three months, to demonstrate performance of payloads and necessary secure data-link to the users.”
Oct 26/10: Rustom-1’s first flight.
April 25/10: State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) win the bid to design and build Rustom. The award marks the 3rd large Indian defence project in which private firms have lost out to public sector rivals, after the Saras light passenger plane and the Army’s tactical communication system project. That trend is causing some questioning of the government’s sincerity regarding its pledges to advance private Indian defense firms. Larsen & Tourbo aerospace and defence VP M.V. Kotwal, whose firm bid on all 3 contracts, is quoted by LiveMint:
“This is a disappointment for us since we had been told that the projects would be open for participation by the private sector on a competitive basis… Otherwise we would not have spent the time and efforts in preparing for the bids. Detailed plans for execution had also been presented as required…”
That last statement alludes to DRDO chief controller of R&D Prahlada’s statement that “HAL-BEL gave us a clear road map for manufacture” as the reason for their victory. LiveMint.
Nov 16/09: DRDO’s Rustom technology demonstrator crashes at the Taneja Aerospace Air Field near Hosur, during its 1st flight. The taxiing and takeoff went as planned, but “due to misjudgment of altitude of the flight, the on-board engine was switched off through ground command…”
That’s not generally a good thing. On the flip side, DRDO says the shortened flight was useful for establishing more confidence in the UAV’s aerodynamics, redundant flight control, engine and datalink. Defense News.
Aug 6/09: India’s Tata Group signs a wide-ranging joint venture agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries, the builders of India’s Searcher and Heron UAVs. The agreement finalizes a commitment made in February 2009 by IAI CEO Itzhak Nissan and Tata Sons Chairman Ratan N. Tata.
Under the terms of the MoU, the new Company will develop, manufacture and support a wide range of defence and aerospace products, including missiles, UAVs, radars, electronic warfare (EW) systems and home land security (HLS) systems. The new company will also perform offset work for IAI and other defence and aerospace programs in India. domain-b.
May 15/09: Larsen and Toubro Ltd. (L&T), Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd., and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. bid to develop India’s Rostam MALE UAV. The 4th bidder is a joint effort by state-owned defence equipment makers Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd. (BEL).
The Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) is testing a technology demonstrator. Once a vendor is selected, ADE and that vendor will design an enhanced version; a selection is expected later in 2009.
ADE’s tender expects that the cost of producing one set of 5 Rustom vehicles with 5 sets of spares, plus payload and ground handling/control equipment, would be around INR 2.5 billion (just under $50 million). India Defence.
Sept 22/08: The first low-speed taxi tests of ADE’s Rustom technology demonstrator take place.
- Air Force Technology – Rustom Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, Chitradurga
- DID – India’s DRDO Rethinking the Way it Does Business.
- iHLS (July 5/13) – Indian desire for UAS results in home production
- DID (June 10/10) – Private Shipbuilding Firm Wins Indian OPV Contract. It’s a slow opening in an important military sector.
- India Defence (March 12/09) – DRDO’s Rustom UAV To Roll Out Soon