Imagine a future Balakot-type airstrike. Instead of exposing the ageing MiG-21s to enemy fire, the Indian Air Force (IAF) could instead deploy a handful of Tejas fighters backed by a swarm of AI-powered unmanned drones to strike the target.
This concept was first mooted by a veteran HAL test pilot in Bengaluru in 2018 to save aircraft and pilot lives in a future war. Over the next two years, with Rs 400-crore funding, HAL developed the Combat Air Teams System (CATS), which has now aroused the interest of the IAF.
The CATS will link a network of advanced autonomous drones to a fighter aircraft which will subsequently use the drones for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, without actually having to enter hostile airspace during a conflict.
Group Captain (Retired) Harsh Vardhan Thakur, an experimental test pilot for HAL and the brainchild behind the CATS, cited three reasons for the invention: India’s relatively limited military resources, the desire to create advanced future-class combat equipment and a tactical preference to use more unmanned assets for attacks on hostile areas.
The central objective, Thakur said, was to enhance teamwork.
“In every service, teamwork is the key to success and survivability, whether you are a soldier, sailor or airman,” Thakur said. “However, to create this kind of autonomous technology to reduce the risk that human pilots faced was impossible in the 90s. But today, we have the technology to do so and that was the starting point.”
Thakur insisted that the idea is not to replace our pilots in the air force but to augment them. The team consists of the mothership, which, in the testbed case, is a two-seat Tejas, plus several different types of drones. One is the CATS Warrior, a large drone which can be used to engage aerial or ground targets. The second is the CATS Hunter which is carried in wingpods attached to the Tejas.
“The Hunter is in essence a recoverable cruise missile, with a 250 kg warhead. When its bomb payload is supplanted by fuel it can stay airborne for a long time to carry out jamming, reconnaissance and post-action filming of strike zones,” Thakur said.
A third drone, according to Arup Chatterjee, Director, Engineering and R&D, HAL, is the much smaller CATS Alpha, which is armed with 5-8 kg warheads and can swarm targets.
Chatterjee said that the project is part of a larger dream project by HAL to develop the advanced technologies of the future.