Source : The Wall Street Journal
|Image CREDIT: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems|
India is close to approving a deal to buy high-altitude armed drones from the U.S. as it seeks to counter a more-assertive Chinese stance on the countries’ contested Himalayan border, people with knowledge of the matter said.
The purchase of the advanced MQ-9B drones—equipped with antisubmarine warfare capabilities as well as land-attack and antiship missiles—would also boost the Indian navy’s surveillance efforts in the Indian Ocean, where China’s naval presence has grown. The decision-making process around the acquisition is gathering momentum in New Delhi, and it could be approved in the next few weeks, according to the people.
If India signs off on the purchase, the deal would need U.S. approval and signing an agreement between the governments could take months. Such an agreement would make India the first country that isn’t a U.S. treaty ally to buy the armed version of the drones. A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Marty Meiners, said the Department of Defense doesn’t comment on potential foreign military sales prior to their formal notification to Congress.
The country’s security forces have operated two MQ-9B drones of a basic version since leasing them from the U.S. in 2020 after a deadly border confrontation with China. The aircraft have provided information about China’s troop and infrastructure buildup and played a critical role in helping India plan its counter moves, according to one of the people with knowledge of the proposed acquisition, who is an Indian security official.
The leased drones have clocked a total of 10,000 hours in the past two years, flying as far as the Gulf of Aden and the South China Sea, the official said.
New Delhi had originally planned to buy 30 drones for roughly $3 billion. The number could be lowered to between 18 and 24 after a recent assessment by a panel consisting of representatives of all three military branches, the security official said. The acquisition needs the go-ahead from two government committees, one headed by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and the other by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The deal would boost a security relationship that has grown rapidly in recent years. Defense trade between the U.S. and India, which was close to zero in 2008, grew to $20 billion by 2020, according to the U.S. State Department. The countries have over the past decade signed pacts that make it easier to use each other’s military bases for replenishment and refueling and to share encrypted military intelligence and geospatial data.
The MQ-9B Predator drones, manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics, would mark the first major American foreign military sales to India since 2020 when New Delhi ordered two dozen Sikorsky MH-60R maritime helicopters made by Lockheed Martin Corp. for an estimated $2.6 billion.
“If the deal goes through it would symbolize a new comfort level that the two countries have with each other where cutting-edge defense technology cooperation is becoming a norm rather than an exception,” said Harsh V. Pant, vice president for foreign policy at New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
New Delhi is keeping a closer eye on the country’s border with China where it says Beijing has taken a more aggressive stance in recent years. Both sides have moved tens of thousands of troops there since the 2020 clash in which 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese soldiers were killed.
India’s navy also patrols the Indian Ocean to track deployments of Chinese warships. The drones would reduce operating costs for the navy, which currently uses long-range patrol aircraft such as Boeing Co.’s P-8I, the Indian security official said.
Predator drones can operate at an altitude of over 40,000 feet and drop sensors or sonobuoys to track the presence of enemy submarines. The drones proposed for sale to India are expected to include advanced radars, sensors and other electronic equipment for surveillance, reconnaissance and precision killing, according to a person with direct knowledge of the proposed deal.
Ahead of the anticipated deal, General Atomics has in recent months inked partnerships with Indian companies in connection with the high-altitude drones. State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. will provide maintenance, repair and overhaul services for the drones’ engines. The American company and Indian conglomerate Bharat Forge Ltd. will jointly manufacture some of its landing-gear components and other small parts.