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Kanpur company becomes 1st Indian manufacturer of aerostructures for suicide drones
Surge in global demand for loitering munitions following resounding validation in Ukraine War
Photo Credit : IAI
The Mini-Harpy Tactical Loitering Munition
A Kanpur-based company has emerged as India’s first manufacturer of aerostructures - including wings and fuselage - for loitering munitions, which are in high demand globally following the seminal role played by such weaponized drones in the ongoing Ukraine War and recent conflicts in Armenia-Azerbaijan, West Asia and Africa.
Lohia Aerospace Systems, a composites manufacturing company, has been tapped by global OEMs to supply aerostructures and launch tubes for a range of loitering munitions - also known as suicide drones – with cross-sections ranging from 90 cm to 3 metres and more following the demand surge.
Earlier regarded as “exotic weapons”, the ‘Drone Moment’ in recent conflicts, particularly in the Ukraine War, has pushed up the demand for loitering munitions drone segment in the global arms bazaar to an estimated 15,000 pieces, with pressure for quick delivery in ongoing conflicts. Market analysts interpret this as a three-fold increase in demand.
“We’re bound by strict customer confidentiality agreements,” Pavitra Goel, general manager of Lohia Aerospace Systems told BW Businessworld when contacted for a response to market information.
The company neither confirmed nor denied information that it has the capacity to manufacture composite-based aerostructures for as many as 500 loitering weapons annually at its Kanpur facility for export to global OEMs. Market estimates put the value of such aerostructures between $5,000 to $10,000 per unit. Lohia Aerospace is said to have already hit a turnover of about Rs 100 Crore ($13 Million) in this segment alone.
Market sources also suggest that Lohia Aerospace could be addressing loitering munitions aerostructure requirements for multiple Israeli OEMs such as IAI, Elbit and Uvision.
Specialisation in composite materials
The Kanpur company entered the aerospace composite business by acquiring the Israeli entity Light & Strong in 2019, and is known to provide aerostructure sections for UAVs/drones made by leading Israeli OEMs like IAI, Blue Bird and Uvision, leveraging Light & Strong’s client base and technological capability. Israel is a lead player in the drone category in the Indian market. The Indian armed forces operate fleets of Searcher and Heron drones and Harop and Harpy loitering munitions.
After consolidating itself as a composites manufacturer for military systems by setting up a “world class facility” at Kanpur - which it terms as “North India’s first aerospace composites facility” - Lohia Aerospace is taking steps to evolve into a drone integrator. “We want a bird to fly out of Kanpur,” acknowledges Goel.
While networking with global supply chains, Lohia is also poised to deliver aerostructures for drones the Indian armed forces may buy or refurbish in the near future.
But it’s the surge in orders for loitering munitions globally which is currently positioning it in the heart of arms bazaar. It is churning out carbon aerostructures and Kevlar cannister tube launchers for these smart weapons.
Emergence of Loitering Munitions
Armed with small warheads, loitering weapons fill a niche between cruise missiles and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) at a fraction of the cost while combining the characteristics of both. Unlike cruise missiles, these loiter or linger in the air, passively waiting for up to 4 hours for a target. And these are distinct from UCAVs as these meant to act as missiles with a built-in warhead and detonate on a target. If a target is not engaged, the loitering munitions can be recovered. These provide an alternative to deployment of high-value platforms, which can be vulnerable to enemy counter-attack.
These have been developed for roles ranging from relatively long-range strikes like suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) to tactical, very short-range battlefield fire support through systems that fit in a backpack.
Industry sources reckon that loitering weapons with 2-to-4 kg warheads are up to six times cheaper than a missile, can wait for a target of opportunity while combining recce and attack functions, generate data till the last second of detonation on target, and can be fired by two soldiers at a platoon level.
System costs reportedly range between $70,000 and $150,000. In comparison, a Javelin anti-tank guided missile shot reportedly burns a $200,000 hole, and the strike range is under 5 km.
The Drone Moment
The Ukraine War has been a seminal validation for the centrality of armed drones in contemporary and future warfare. Drones proved extremely effective in targeting Russian tanks, artillery, Surface-to-Air missile launchers and logistics columns - the last proved particularly effective since lack of fuel and spares led to the abandonment of a large number of armoured vehicles by Russians.
Performance of loiter weapons like the US Aero Environment-supplied Switchblade 300 has been the stuff of legend. The Switchblade-Puma (recce drones) combination allowed the engagement of Russian tanks from a safe distance of 5-6 kilometres. Tanks with four-man crews seemed near helpless in the face of drone assaults. A reported 500 Switchblade 300s have been supplied too the Ukranians. With a 3-to-4-hour endurance, it enables a targeting range of 100-150 km with ample time to hunt for the target.
With the Indian military drone fleet almost two decades old, and contemporary warfare putting a premium on unmanned aerial vehicles, there’s certainty of business opportunity for niche players like Lohia Aerospace, India’s first multinational composites manufacturing company.
But Goel says Lohia is not banking just on Defence business. “We’ve established ourselves as suppliers for military products. But Defence business mostly is about high-volume, short-burst orders. Hence, we’re also catering to the civil aerospace market,” he says.