The MQ-9B drone, an advanced variant of the MQ-9 Reaper, is a step away from gracing India’s skies as India’s order for the SeaGuardian and the SkyGuardian – tailor-made for territorial and maritime surveillance and reconnaissance comes through at an estimated cost of nearly $4 billion. A vast array of missiles, sensors and radars are part of this mega deal aimed at bolstering India’s military might.
The bid to strengthen drone warfare and surveillance capabilities has received a shot in the arm with the US Congress notifying the sale of 31 MQ-9B drones to India. CNN-News18 had reported how the US State Department has informed General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator drones, that the US Congress has given its nod to a ‘tiered review’ of the sale.
This puts to rest earlier reports on certain media portals that claimed that the US Congress was blocking the deal until India carried out a “meaningful investigation” into the alleged plot to assassinate separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Quashing these rumours, Indian officials said the matter is irrelevant and hardly affects the important bilateral ties between the two countries.
The fighter-sized MQ-9B drones are high altitude, long endurance (HALE) UAVs and are designed for extended flights, lasting up to 40 hours at altitudes surpassing 40,000 feet. These characteristics make them well-suited for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. They come equipped with air-to-ground Hellfire missiles and smart bombs, enhancing their capabilities for precise and targeted attacks.
At an estimated cost of $3.99 billion as quoted by the US State Department, the 31 drones will include 15 SeaGuardians for the navy and 16 SkyGuardians, eight each for the army and the air force. The drones will be armed with Hellfire missiles apart from state-of-the-art GPS systems and Rio Grande communications intelligence sensor suites.
This massive drone purchase will mark a pivotal moment in India-US defence ties as expressed in the US State Department’s official notification, which stated: “The proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by helping to strengthen the US-Indian strategic partnership and to improve the security of a major defence partner which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region.”
The agreement was unveiled during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit last year, and the acquisition of these drones is poised to bolster the ISR as well as targeted strike capabilities of the military.
According to initial reports, these drones, which will be “assembled” in India by the manufacturer General Atomics (GA), are expected to be inducted into the armed forces over the next six to seven years. Further, as per the letter of request by the central government, General Atomics will establish a “cost-effective and comprehensive global maintenance” and repair facility in India, in addition to sourcing components from Indian firms.
Boost for India’s drone arsenal
The war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted the increasing importance of drones in warfare, marking a shift in traditional war strategies. American UAVs will help plug critical gaps for India at a time when drones have become a major weapon for modern warfare.
In the last three decades, the USA’s active deployment of an array of drones in West Asia demonstrating both surveillance and strike capabilities in conflict-ridden areas has given it a significant military edge in the region.
The MQ-9B Predator is of special interest for India, especially in the context of the Indo-China border standoff that has lasted for four years so far. It is also significant in the wake of rising stakes in the Indian Ocean, where China is taking a keen interest and where there is a heightened risk of attacks by Houthis and Somali pirates.
This deal is of particular interest for the Indian Navy, which is already operating two unarmed Predator drones acquired on lease from the US for primarily anti-submarine warfare and surveillance operations.
As per General Atomics, the “SeaGuardian is designed to fly over the horizon via satellite for over 30 hours (depending on configuration) in all types of weather and safely integrate into civil airspace, enabling joint forces and civil authorities to deliver real-time situational awareness anywhere in the maritime domain – day or night”.
The SeaGuardian is the first in its class of remotely piloted aircraft systems that enables real-time search and patrol above and below the ocean’s surface, which will enhance India’s surveillance and patrolling missions in the Indian Ocean.
The leased drones are a hit among the armed forces. Often referred to as “hunter-killers”, they have not only significantly reduced the burden of tasks on the P-8Is also acquired from the US, but have also conducted operations along the Line of Actual Control at the request of the Indian Army.
They also cannot be compared to the fully indigenous medium altitude, long-endurance Tapas drone being developed by DRDO, which faced performance shortfalls and design flaws that ultimately led to a downgrading of the development programme.
India’s indigenous push
India’s military drone programme has been marked by hits and misses, with the most promising highlight being the Ghatak stealth drone. Unlike its peers, Tapas and Nishant, Ghatak is still on track and moving forward.
Recently, the DRDO successfully demonstrated the flight trial of the Autonomous Flying Wing Technology Demonstrator, a domestically produced high-speed flying wing UAV. This technology demonstrator is designed for the covert stealth combat drone Ghatak. The achievement of a successful flight in a tailless configuration places India among the esteemed group of nations that have mastered the controls for the flying wing configuration.
The autonomous system using a flying wing design signifies a leap forward in self-piloting technology. Once deployed, the Indian Air Force, equipped with a fleet of these high-speed drones, will have the capability to send the Ghatak to any surveyed airfield and facilitate landing without the need for infrastructure such as ground radar or a pilot.
While the DRDO marches on despite a purported leadership and bureaucratic crisis, India’s military drone programme requires a giant leap of faith, whether it is through inviting the private sector or setting up a dedicated organisation with suitable funding and younger talent.
Already, young Indian scientists are showing promise in this field of research. The IIT Kanpur has created a homegrown iteration of the Kamikaze drone, a type of suicide drone capable of transporting a warhead weighing up to 6 kg for a distance of up to 100 km.
In this vein, while India is setting up its indigenous combat drone development programme, it is not overlooking the urgent demand for enhanced military drones in its arsenal or compromising on national security. The colossal MQ-9B purchase is a need of the hour and will be a game changer for India’s military might and its objective of containing the Chinese threat in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean.