The Indian Air Force (IAF) is actively pursuing the development of stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) and Loyal Wingman systems, despite initial reservations expressed by Air Chief Marshal Vivek R Chaudhari regarding the procurement of Armed Drones due to their vulnerability in contested airspace.
The IAF's strategic outlook is adapting to the changing dynamics of modern warfare, with a focus on the "Contours of Future Wars" and the emergence of multidimensional hybrid warfare, observed in recent global conflicts. Strengthening fighter squadrons, which have faced budget constraints and slow modernization, is a key objective.
The concept of "manned-unmanned teaming" is central to both the Loyal Wingman and UCAV programs. The IAF intends to acquire more than 100 Loyal Wingman aircraft, developed in collaboration with NewSpace Research and Technologies (NRT), a Bengaluru-based start-up. Successful testing of a scaled model has already taken place, with plans for a full-scale model test post-2025. These aircraft will support manned counterparts while conducting strike missions in contested airspace.
Another significant program, led by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (AD), focuses on a 13-ton UCAV powered by a Dry Kaveri engine. These UCAVs will carry out airstrikes in contested airspace, complementing the capabilities of the Manned 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter jet, especially in air superiority missions deep within enemy territory.
While concerns about armed drone vulnerability persist, the development of stealthy UCAVs and Loyal Wingman systems demonstrates a proactive approach to address the evolving dynamics of future conflicts.