From UAVs to refuellers: How Israel is helping India keep an eye on LAC

He has accompanied Indian troops on their battle readiness exercises, sat at the table with defense ministers, addressed chief ministers of five states on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to gather intelligence about Naxals, and once even joined the Andhra Pradesh police out we have a mission. Ever since the Galwan incident of 2020, he has been keeping a close watch on the Sino-Indian boundary.

These days, Avi Bleser, vice-president of marketing for India at Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), says he is working closely with the Indian Army and Indian Air Force to tailor solutions for their defense needs.

This includes the induction of Heron MK II, a state-of-the-art UAV that can fly at a height of 35,000 feet, cover a radius of 1000 km, see through dense clouds, work in bad weather and fly for 45 hours. It’s learned that MK IIs are being deployed in Leh.

Last year, the Indian Army had also taken on lease Heron TPs, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) for all-weather missions, from IAI. Heron TP drones are one of the two drones made in Israel that can be armed, if needed.

Bleser traces his relationship with India to 1991 when he first met an Indian delegation at the Singapore air show. “I was traveling on a European passport, they invited me to South Block. It is after four years that the Ministry of Defense signed an agreement with the IAI to provide two search systems.”

The relationship has evolved over time – from being an importer of Israeli tech and equipment, Indian companies are now collaborating with IAI on a variety of ventures.

India ties go back 30 years: IAI’s Avi Bleser

The IAI and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have signed a joint venture whereby IAI will not only offer UAVs to India, but also help HAL in manufacturing them in India.

In 2018, the Adanis joined hands with Isareli company Elbit Systems to inaugurate a facility for manufacturing the Hermes 900 UAV in Hyderabad.

Earlier, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017, the IAI had signed an agreement with Elcom Systems and Dynamatic Technologies for the manufacture of UAVs in India.

Earlier this year, HAL signed a memorandum of understanding with IAI to convert civil passenger aircraft into a multi-mission tanker transport (MMTT) for air refueling with cargo and transport capabilities. The MoU also covers conversion of passenger planes into freighter aircraft.

The IAI is a world leader in this field, says Noam Sharoni, director of the Boeing 767 conversions at IAI, as he shows aircraft aged 17 years and above that are given a new lease of life at the IAI headquarters in Tel Aviv.

“We have converted a record 283 passenger aircraft into freighters,” he says, adding how the electric wires for the project are sourced from a Bengaluru-based company called SASMOS HET Technologies Ltd.

The high-security IAI compound is manned by a staff of over 15,000 – 10,000 of whom are engineers and scientists. The gigantic, squeaky clean hangars are their labs. And the IAI tagline — Where courage meets technology – stares at you from the walls as men, many dressed in black T-shirts, attend to aircraft and UAVs, big and small.

Bleser, who was part of the team that developed Scout, Israel’s first eye-in-the-sky after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has seen technology evolve rapidly over the last 40-plus years. He recalls how it was after this war in which Israel defeated a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria but suffered heavy casualties, including 102 aircraft, that the Israeli defense ministry asked IAI to develop an “eye-in-the-sky” that could function round the clock. This led to the induction of Scout in 1979.

“Initially, Scout could track enemy movement only during the day. Our engineers installed the camera of a black-and-white TV on gyros for this unmanned vehicle. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were so happy with it that after 1000 flying hours, they only sought maintenance.”

UAVs have come a long way since then. The dainty Heron MK II, for instance, can climb at a speed of 800 feet per minute, providing real time information to all the ground stations which can use it to decide their course of action, says Bleser. Above all, he can listen to various devices and pinpoint the target, he says.

MK II can also be used for search and rescue operations. “It can carry under its wing a rubber dinghy which can be released for rescue missions.”

Bleser says 70 percent of the flying hours in the defense sector are now being done by UAVs. “The world is looking for unmanned capability and solutions.”

— (The reporter was in Israel at the invitation of the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi)