According to sources familiar with the matter, India’s defense ministry has granted approval for the procurement of 31 MQ-9B armed drones from the United States. The formal announcement of this significant deal is expected to take place during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming state visit to Washington next week.
The MQ-9B Reaper drones have proven to be a highly capable aerial platforms, boasting a payload capacity of approximately 1,700 kg and an impressive range of 6,000 nautical miles. These versatile drones are capable of carrying an assortment of payloads, including sensors, laser-guided bombs, air-to-ground missiles, with a maximum payload capacity of two tonnes.
Amidst the border tensions with China in eastern Ladakh during 2020, the Indian Navy made a strategic move by acquiring two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics on a lease basis for surveillance purposes. Since then, these two drones have effectively served the Indian Navy, accumulating over 10,000 hours of flight time and covering a vast expanse of over 14 million square miles.
The Indian military has harnessed the power of these drones for intelligence gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions along various critical regions, including the Line of Actual Control, the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Arabian Sea, and the areas surrounding the Maldivian waters.
Negotiations between India and the United States for the drone deal have been ongoing for more than five years. However, certain officials within India have expressed concerns over the estimated price tag of approximately $3 billion (equivalent to around Rs 24,585 crore). Additionally, the Indian side is strongly advocating for the manufacturing of drone components to be localized within the country, thereby bolstering the domestic drone industry.
To address these concerns, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems took a significant step earlier this year by partnering with India’s Bharat Forge. This collaboration aims to establish production capabilities for landing gear components, subassemblies, and assemblies specifically for remotely piloted aircraft, particularly the Predator drones. The alliance between these two entities will further strengthen the domestic manufacturing capabilities in the drone sector, bringing India closer to achieving self-sufficiency in this critical technology.
Also, during the Aero India show held in Bengaluru, the engine division of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) made a noteworthy announcement. HAL expressed its commitment to providing local support for the Honeywell TPE 331-5 engines, which are the powerhouses behind the General Atomics MQ-9B Guardian UAVs. This collaboration between General Atomics and HAL, solidified through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), signifies a significant stride towards indigenous support for the drone engines.
These developments highlight the determination of both India and the US to address the challenges surrounding the drone deal. By considering pricing concerns and prioritizing domestic manufacturing and support, the involved parties aim to foster a mutually advantageous agreement that promotes technological self-reliance and strengthens the strategic partnership between India and the US in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles.