Commercial satellite imagery acquired by DigitalGlobe confirms that the Indian Air Force still flies the IAI Heron from Assam’s Tezpur. The airbase is located less than 20km from the disputed territory of Arunachal Pradesh. Space snapshots from October 2015 show the Israeli-built platform parked near a new drive through maintenance hangar constructed since 2014. There’s been no official reporting of a UAV squadron deployed at the airbase which may suggest that this is a rotation. Alternatively, the new hangar could suggest this is a permanent deployment. Future imagery may provide more insight. The last time the aircraft was spotted at Tezpur was in November 2009, prior to the airbase renovations.
The Heron, a medium altitude long endurance UAV, can perform of variety of roles including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, target acquisition, ELINT, COMINT and data relay. IAI payloads to support those missions include SAR/GMTI or the EL/M-2022U maritime surveillance radar. Other payloads can include the Elta EL/K-7071 COMINT, EL/L-8385 ESM/ELINT, Ku-band SATCOM, or customer-provided payload. Multiple payload options allow for both day and night operation.
The twin-boom, unarmed aircraft has a range of 350km, an endurance of 45 hours as well as retractable landing gear for unobstructed coverage by onboard sensors. India is one of the largest operators of the Heron and the world’s largest importer of UAVs.
The Royal British Indian Air Force first constructed an airfield at Tezpur during the Second World War. By 1959, it was further developed by the Indian Air Force and classified as a “full-fledged” air force base. According to the Economic Times, it has been one of the most active bases in the Northeast hosting a variety of aircraft including a MIG-21 training unit. By 1993, the base also took on civilian flights as it was the only feeder airport for the nearby state of Arunachal Pradesh. Between 2007 and 2009, flight operations were halted and the base underwent extensive runway repair and extensions. Since reopening in early 2009, the base reportedly received a Su-30MKI detachment of five aircraft in June of the same year. Since the deployment of the Su-30MKI, the airfield continues to see further renovations with new hangars and additional support buildings.