India and the United States are poised to unveil a momentous defence agreement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming state visit to Washington. The procurement of 18 MQ-9 Predator drones, valued at $3 billion (Rs 24,000 crore), from the United States will significantly strengthen the strategic partnership between India and the US.
Additionally, both nations are on the verge of finalizing a multi-billion dollar deal for the indigenous production of General Electric F414 engines in India. Another agreement worth Rs 800 crore is set to be announced, entailing the leasing of two MQ-9 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy.
These agreements will solidify the United States’ position as India’s second-largest defence hardware supplier, following Russia. Over the years since 2008, India has procured military hardware worth $18 billion from the United States, with the most recent deal involving the purchase of 24 MH-60R Seahawk naval helicopters at a cost of $2.1 billion, signed in February 2020.
The MQ-9 Predator is an advanced High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drone guided by satellite technology. Capable of operating at an altitude of 45,000 feet and maintaining missions for up to 35 hours, it features a range of sensors including radar and electronic support measures that facilitate enemy detection and enable precise targeting with bombs and missiles.
The Indian Navy currently operates two unarmed MQ-9 Sea Guardians, which were leased from the US under emergency powers granted in response to the Ladakh standoff in 2020. These drones serve the purpose of monitoring the Indian Ocean deployments of the PLA Navy. Both Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) are stationed at INS Rajali, a naval airbase located 70 km west of Chennai.
The acquisition of MQ-9 drones has been in the works for six years. Initially, in 2017, the Navy proposed the purchase of 22 Sea Guardians. Subsequently, the defence ministry transformed the case into a tri-services acquisition plan for 30 drones, with ten units assigned to each service. Eventually, due to budgetary constraints and the desire to promote indigenous manufacturing, the number was reduced to six units.
While the previous procurement involved a deal between the Indian Navy and the US company General Atomics, facilitated by emergency purchase powers, the new agreement will be signed directly between India’s defence ministry and the foreign vendor. Notably, this particular deal does not involve the transfer of technology or defence offsets. The delivery of the drones is expected within a span of five years. Furthermore, this agreement will establish India as the first non-NATO state to receive armed UAVs from the United States for deployment along its borders and in the Indian Ocean region.
Referred to as the MQ-9B or Predator-B, the MQ-9 is an enlarged version of the Predator Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) that initially took flight in 1994. The Predator-series RPAs have become integral to the global presence of the United States, deployed in various conflict zones worldwide. On March 14 of this year, a Russian Su-27 fighter jet intercepted an MQ-9 Reaper drone near Crimea, forcing it to crash.
A senior officer has highlighted the superiority of the MQ-9s over the leased RPAs, emphasizing that the former are classified as military aircraft, whereas the leased RPAs are akin to ordinary leased planes. He explains that the MQ-9s being procured have been enhanced with a new radar and boast higher service ceilings. Additionally, they possess a due regard radar, which permits their operation in controlled airspace. In contrast, the currently leased drones fly at an altitude of approximately 26,000 feet and are not considered military aircraft.
Rear Admiral Sudhir Pillai (Retd) emphasizes that drones have revolutionized warfare, providing an unprecedented advantage in terms of area coverage and endurance. Even satellite coverage is unable to match the effectiveness of these aircraft in tactical surveillance within specific regions. While satellites excel in strategic surveillance, the endurance and operational altitude of drones make them highly effective for tactical purposes.
The utilization of drones in conflicts has fundamentally altered the nature of warfare. In the Russia-Ukraine war, both sides employ drones to target troops, equipment, and bunkers. According to a May 2023 report by RUSI, Russia shoots down approximately 10,000 Ukrainian drones each month.
In the context of India, Chinese drones have posed a significant concern for the Indian Army along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). In December 2022, the Indian Air Force had to scramble fighter jets to counter air violations by Chinese drones in Arunachal Pradesh. Pakistan, too, has been deploying drones for smuggling arms and drugs across the border, as evidenced by a June 2021 attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization on an Indian military establishment in Jammu and Kashmir using drones armed with explosive charges.
Pakistan has collaborated with China in the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). There are concerns that Turkey’s notable advancements in drone technology could lead to technology transfer to Pakistan. In such a scenario, the acquisition of Predators enables the Indian armed forces to enhance their surveillance capabilities along land and sea frontiers until indigenous options can be deployed.
Lt Gen Vinod G Khandare (Retd), Principal Advisor at the Ministry of Defense, acknowledges the evolving nature of warfare, with drones playing a central role. He emphasizes the need for India to make significant strides in drone manufacturing to ensure self-sufficiency.
Overall, the defence deals between India and the United States, involving the acquisition of MQ-9 Predator drones and the manufacturing of fighter jet engines, signify a deepening of their strategic partnership. These agreements will enhance India’s defence capabilities and enable effective surveillance along its borders and in the Indian Ocean region, keeping pace with the evolving nature of warfare.