India is in “advanced stages” of talks with the US to buy 30 MQ-9B Predator armed drones for over USD 3 billion to crank up its surveillance mechanism in the Indian Ocean region along with China, people who Events are familiar with said on Sunday.
The MQ-9B drone is a variant of the MQ-9 “Reaper”, which was used to launch a modified version of the Hellfire missile that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the middle of Kabul last month.
Official sources in the defence establishment said talks are underway between New Delhi and Washington for government-to-government purchases of generic nuclear-built drones, and dismissed reports that the deal is off the table.
General Atomics Global Corporation chief executive Dr. Vivek Lal told PTI that the acquisition program is in the final stages of talks between the two governments.
“We understand that the MQ-9B acquisition program is at an advanced stage of discussion between the US and Indian governments,” he said.
“Any questions on those discussions should be addressed specifically to the governments concerned. From a company perspective, General Atomics stands ready to support India and values our longstanding relationship,” Lal said.
Predator-killer drones are being procured for the three services as they can perform a variety of roles including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and over-the-horizon targeting.
The High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) drones are capable of being in the air for more than 35 hours and can carry four Hellfire missiles and about 450 kg of warheads.
The MQ-9B has two variants, the SkyGuardian and its sibling SeaGuardian.
Sources said the talks are focused on resolving certain issues related to cost, weapons package and technology sharing.
It is learned that the purchase offer came up at the fourth two-plus-two foreign and defence ministerial-level dialogue between India and the US in Washington in April.
In 2020, the Indian Navy leased two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics for a year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean. Later the lease period has been extended.
The Indian Navy is strengthening its surveillance mechanism to monitor escalating Chinese activities, including frequent attacks by PLA warships in the Indian Ocean region.
When asked about the two drones, Lal said they performed “very well” and flew close to 3,000 hours in support of the Indian Navy’s maritime and land border patrol objectives.
“General Atomics has supported India by providing two MQ-9 remotely operated aircraft over the past three years as part of a Company Owned/Company Operated (COCO) Lease Agreement,” he said.
“In the past six months, nearly 3,000 hours have been flown in support of the Indian Navy’s maritime and land border patrol objectives, covering an operational area of 14 million square miles,” he said.
“Our Indian customers have been impressed by the MQ-9’s over-the-horizon ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) support for surface units and Indian warships as well as the platform’s exceptional stamina and operational availability,” the top executive added.
According to General Atomics, the MQ-9B is designed not only to meet NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) standards but also to comply with civilian airspace requirements in the US and around the world.
The Indian armed forces are focusing on procuring unmanned platforms, including armed drones, to monitor the movements of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean region in the backdrop of the eastern Ladakh border standoff with China.
The procurement proposal has been moved by the Indian Navy and the three services are likely to get 10 drones each.
The MQ-9B has integrated signals intelligence and communications intelligence systems onboard, but it can carry any number of other custom sensors as needed.
The Indian Navy is pushing for procurement to boost its overall surveillance over the Indian Ocean, an area that has seen increasing aggression by Chinese ships and submarines in the past few years.
In February 2020, India signed a USD 2.6 billion deal with the US for the purchase of 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters from US aerospace major Lockheed Martin for the Indian Navy. The deliveries of the helicopters have already started.
Following the eastern Ladakh standoff, India has significantly increased its day and night surveillance along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) using a fleet of remotely operated aircraft.
India-US defence ties have strengthened over the years.
In June 2016, the US designated India a ‘major defence partner’, paving the way for sharing of critical military equipment and technology.
The two countries have also signed important defence and security agreements over the years, including a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 to allow their forces to use each other’s bases to repair and replenish supplies.
The two sides signed COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) in 2018, which provides for interoperability between the two armies and provides for the sale of high technology from the US to India.
In October 2020, India and the US sealed the BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) agreement to further boost bilateral defence ties.
The agreement provides for sharing of high-end military technology, logistics and geospatial maps between the two countries.