Under a fast-track project that forms an integral part of India’s efforts to develop a credible cruise missile defence system, the Defence Research & Development Organisation’s (DRDO) ADE and ASL laboratories are co-developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called Nirbhay (fearless) that will be both air-launched and ship-launched. Believed to have been launched in late 2005, the project calls for the UAV to be developed as both a high-speed target drone capable of simulating the flight profiles of land-attack/anti-ship cruise missiles like China’s DH-10A and Pakistan’s Babur, as well as sea-skimming anti-ship missiles like the A/RGM-84A Harpoon and C-802A, both of which are operational with the Pakistan Navy. In addition, a ground-launched conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant of the Nirbhay is also envisaged—this being a high-speed, medium-altitude vehicle equipped with a 130kg payload for standoff, theatre-level reconnaissance—in response to a specific air staff requirement of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
To be powered by a NPO Saturn-supplied 36MT turbofan rated at 400kg thrust, the Nirbhay’s target drone variant will be capable of cruising at a speed of Mach 0.92 at medium altitudes (10,000 feet) and 1,100kph at sea level, have a flight endurance of two hours, will sea-skim at 10 metres above sea level, will be able to pull up to 6.5 G, be equipped with a 130kg payload (of up to 24 different types such as towed radar/infra-red reflector/augmentation devices, EW jammers and hit-scorer avionics), and will have a digital flight management system that will enable the drone to undertake various flight manoeuvres like snaking, pop-up and a 40-degree dive. The ship-launched variant of Nirbhay will be equipped with twin solid-propellant boosters that will be ejected once the drone is airborne, while for the IAF, it will be configured for launch from an IL-76MD transport aircraft. For recovery purposes, both variants of the drone will be equipped with parachutes and inflatable air-bags. The drone will have a maximum takeoff weight of 650kg (minus the twin boosters), overall length of 5.5 metres, wingspan of 2.5 metres, and a fuselage diameter of 0.40 metres. The Nirbhay’s theatre reconnaissance CTOL-UAV variant for the IAF will be equipped with an X-band inverse synthetic aperture radar (most likely the EL/M-20600 from ELTA Systems of Israel), a wideband two-way data link, and a ring laser gyro-based inertial navigation system coupled to a GPS receiver. Maiden flight of the drone’s first prototype is scheduled for early 2009, while its CTOL-UAV variant is expected to fly later the same year. Present plans call for procuring up to 80 drones and 30 UAVs. Series production of the Nirbhay will be undertaken by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, while the 36MT turbofans will be procured off-the-shelf from NPO Saturn. In October 2006, NPO Saturn had inked a US$100 million contract with the DRDO under which the latter will deliver, starting this December, a total of 200 36MT turbofans through to 2010.--Prasun K. Sengupta