Media reports of January 15, 2024 stated the government has shut down the Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS BH-201) drone project of the DRDO, despite completing some 200 flights since its first flight in November 2016. The cost of the project sanctioned in February 2011 for Rs 1,540.74 crore was revised to Rs 1,786 crore in 2022. In May 2022, TAPAS BH-201 was handed over to Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) for limited production, and was flown during Aero India 2023.  

Characteristics of Tapas UAV include: capacity – 350 kg (772 lb) payload; length – 9.5m (31 ft 2 in); wingspan – 20.6 m (67 ft 7 in), empty weight – 1,800 kg (3,968 lb); power plant (prototype)– 2 x NPO-Satum 36T engines wing-mounted turboprop, 74.57 kW (100.00 hp) each); power plant (production) – 2 x VRDE indigenous 160 kW (220 hp) each; propellers – 3-blade constant-speed propeller. Performance was to include: maximum speed – 224 km/h (139 mph, 121 kn); ferry range – 1,000 km (620 mi, 540 nmi; endurance – 18 hours; service ceiling 8,500 m (28,000) ft).

Tapas was among the biggest indigenous DRDO projects under which 76 such UAVs were to be initially developed – 60 for the Army, 4 for the Navy and 12 for the Air Force. In July 2022, Armenia also expressed interest to acquire the TAPAS-BH-201. The reasons mentioned for shutting the project were: flew at an altitude of 28,000 feet against the requirement of 30,000 feet; flying endurance of 18 hours against required 20 hours; airframe configuration limits ability to address performance shortfalls; lack of suitable turboprop power-plant.  .

A major reason for shutting the TAPAS project is Drishti 10 Starliner UAV, acquired under the emergency procurement mechanism. Adani Defence & Aerospace has an agreement with Israeli firm Elbit to manufacture the Hermes 900 at Hyderabad with Adani Defence & Aerospace. In March 2023, India ordered four Hermes 900; two each for the Army and the Navy, to be co-manufactured by Elbit and Adani Defence & Aerospace. Hermes 900 is capable of both surveillance and bombardment. As of now, Adani Aerospace & Defence is only manufacturing the airframe for the Drishti 10 Starliner and assembling the UAV. Hopefully, Elbit will transfer the technology to Adani Defence & Aerospace in due course, enabling a truly indigenous Drishti 10 Starliner  

Characteristics of Hermes 900 UAV include: capacity – 450 kg (990 lb) payload; length – 8.3 m (27 ft 3 in); wingspan – 15 m (49 ft 3 in); gross weight – 1,100 kg (2,425 lb), power plant – one Rotax 916 160 kW (210 hp). maximum speed – 220 km/h (140 mph, 120 kn); cruise speed – 112 km/h (70 mph, 60 kn); endurance – 30 hours; service ceiling – 9,100 m (30,000 ft).

India-Israel defence cooperation goes decades back and is solid. In the ongoing war in Gaza, India gave 70 tons of humanitarian aid to Palestine, including tents, blankets, hygiene kits, life-saving medicines, surgical items and medical equipment, according to government sources. At the same time, India also sent over 20 Drishti 10 Starliner UAVs to Israel which the Israeli military has deployed in Gaza.     

Now doubts, by design or default, are emerging in the media concerning the Indo-Russian venture to manufacture AK-203 assault rifles in India. In January 2019, an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) was signed between India and Russia and subsequently the Indo-Russia Rifles Private Limited (IRRPL) was set-up as a joint venture between OFB with 50.5% stake, Kalashnikov 42% and Rosoboronexport (Russia’s state-owned defence export agency) 7.5%.

The foundation stone for indigenous production of the AK-203 assault rifles at the IRRPL facility was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Amethi on March 3, 2019 in presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Major General Sanjeev Sengar (serving officer) was appointed CEO of the factory in July 2019.

The final India-Russia deal signed on August 19, 2021 required immediate off-the-shelf procurement of 1,00,000 x AK-203 series of assault rifles and  671,427 units to be produced at the Korwa facility under ‘Make in India’. Earlier in January 2021, then Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane stated that “negotiations are at an advanced stage” and all issues and differences have been sorted out.  The Russian side also confirmed that “all technical and commercial issues have been agreed”. As per reports, the cost per rifle had gone down to Rs 70,000 and Rs 6,000 per rifle would be paid to Russia as royalty for licensed production in India; adding up to Rs 4.03 crores for the 671,427 units.

Now the project is reportedly facing significant roadblocks due to high costs, including royalty payment, transfer of technology and cheaper alternatives available off-the-shelf. But how come these issues were not sorted out given the statement by the then COAS and the Russian side in January 2021 that all issues (commercial and technical) have been sorted out. By now, we should have imported the first 1,00,000 units from Russia to help modernize the Armed Forces, with the government emphasizing periodically  there is  no dearth of money for the military.     

Another major hurdle being mentioned is that the indigenous content is proving challenging since the initial aim was 100% localization of production. In the first place it was wrong to team up OFB in the first place given their dismal record in small arms development. Moreover, OFB would have lost interest with the conversion of OFB and its 41 Ordnance Factories into DPSUs. What stopped us from looking at alternatives? Witness the indigenous 7.62x51mm ‘UGRAM’ assault rifle introduced by  the Hyderabad-based Dvipa Armour India Private Limited (DAIPL) on January 8, 2024.

The OFB also has a poor record in terms of ammunition. There have been numerous instances of provision of faulty ammunition (for artillery and even for TAVOR assault rifles) causing the avoidable loss of thousands of crores of rupees. The silent version of Uzi submachine guns imported during the 1999 Kargil Conflict functioned “silently” only until the Israeli ammunition was being used but became noisy with indigenous ammunition. 

Notably the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had signed a contract with the US firm Sig Sauer on February 5, 2019, to procure 72,400 7.62x51mm SIG716 assault rifles. Under the Rs 647-crore deal, Sig Sauer was to deliver the assault rifles within one year through the foreign military sales (FMS) route. Out of the 72,400 7.62x51mm SIG716 assault rifles, Indian Army would receive 66,400, while Indian Air Force and Indian Navy would get 4,000 and 2,000 of these rifles respectively. The Armed Forces require 8.1 lakh assault rifles for the three services, out of which Army alone needs 7.6 lakh rifles to replace the INSAS rifles.

In late 2020, SIG Sauer provided the 72,400 7.62x51mm rifles, of which the Indian Army received 66,400 units, the Indian Air Force 4,000 and the Indian Navy the remaining 2,000. But soon after MoD proscribed all assault rifle imports and included the weapon system in its Positive Indigenization List. In January 2024, Chief of The Army Staff Chief of Staff General Manoj Pande declared that the Army would receive its first batch of 5,000 locally manufactured Ak-203 7.62x39mm rifles without mentioning the delivery schedule.

There is speculation that indigenous production of the Ak-203 7.62x39mm rifles at the IRRPL facility is being deliberately delayed by vested parties aligned with the US who would do anything to have this Indo-Russian project shelved. Whether the project will be able to cross the hurdles and pick up pace, or will be shut down remains a question mark. Meanwhile, there is news that the DRDO is making efforts to save the TAPAS BH-2 project.

The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.

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