Aero India 2021: HAL puts on show lethal new warfighting system

While the IAF may offer to fund the project at a later stage, for now HAL is funding it with its internal resources
Departing from the public sector tradition of unimaginative and shabby exhibition displays, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is enthralling the attendees of Aero India 2021 with a glitzy, laser-lit, full-scale mock-up that shows how the Indian Air Force (IAF) will fight the wars of the future.

The highlight of HAL’s display is the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS), a combination of manned and unmanned systems that will operate in wartime in tandem, reinforcing each other’s strengths and compensating for the other’s vulnerabilities.

This new concept moves on from the current practice of groups of manned fighter aircraft entering enemy airspace and, with each one essentially fighting as an isolated platform, shooting down enemy fighter aircraft and bombing ground targets.

CATS does not send pilots into enemy airspace, where they risk being shot down, captured and held hostage, thereby taking a purely military operation into the political realm. Instead, it envisions manned aircraft functioning as airborne controllers of lethal, unmanned vehicles that swarm in numbers into enemy airspace and overwhelm their defences.

The concept, which has multiple components, was presented by HAL to the IAF at the end of 2019. It interested the air marshals enough for them to request an oversight role in the project, with the first step being the development of a “proof of concept”, or an initial working prototype.

While the IAF may offer to fund the project at a later stage, for now HAL is funding it with its internal resources.

The heart of the entire system is a “mothership” called the CATS-MAX, based on a fighter like the Tejas LCA (light combat aircraft), which flies at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet, remaining inside our own airspace. From the CATS-MAX, a single pilot, or a duo, controls operations, scanning the skies for enemy aircraft or ground targets, depending upon the mission.

The strike power of the system comes from four or more separate unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) called the CATS Warriors. Taking off and flying autonomously at altitudes of 36,000-40,000 feet, these are basically “loyal wingmen” that are armed with a variety of weapons and sensors depending upon the mission.

The CATS-MAX could direct them, through a secure data link, to strike ground targets up to 350 km inside enemy territory, retaining the range to fly back a similar distance. Alternatively, the unmanned craft could be sent on a suicide mission 900-1,000 km deep, sacrificing themselves for the sake of range.

“The cost of each Warrior would be about Rs 40 crore, which could be written off depending upon the importance of the mission,” said HAL’s design chief, Arup Chatterjee.

The Warrior prototype on display is a sleek vehicle, about the size of a Maruti 800 car. It is built with stealth design and Chatterjee is confident its low “radar cross section” would ensure it is not detected — or detected too late — by enemy radar.

The Warrior will be powered by an upgraded version of the engine that HAL has already developed — the PTAE-7 jet that is used to power the Lakshya target vehicle.

The third component of the system is the CATS Hunter, which is basically a smaller Warrior and does most of the functions of a Warrior but is carried on the mothership’s wings. Once the mothership reaches its launch point, the Hunters are released and they fly out to distances of 200-300 km and execute their mission.

The fourth component is CATS ALFA, or Air Launched Flexible Assets. These are small drones that are carried on a glide pod and launched 200-300 km from the target. After gliding a long range, the glide pod dispenses a number of drones, which assume a swarm formation for a swarming attack on the eventual surface target. 

The concept also visualises a CATS INFINITY high altitude, pseudo-satellite that can be launched as a control vehicle and stay aloft for up to three months. It is powered by solar energy and has huge wings to accommodate the solar panels.

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