India Acquires Most Powerful American ‘Flying Machines’ Amid Rising Tensions With China

The Indian Navy has leased two MQ-9B Sea Guardian UAVs (a variant of Predator B) from the United States for one year to boost its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the midst of the border row with China. The drones will be deployed in the Indian Ocean Region. 

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The Indian news agency ANI has reported that drones arrived in India in the second week of November and were inducted into flying operations on November 21 at the Indian Navy base at INS Rajali. The development comes almost a month after the high-profile visit of the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper to India for the 2+2 ministerial dialogue. 

Soon after the signing of the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) during the US officials’ visit, reports had emerged that India refused the offer due to the cost-worthiness of the aircraft.

The current induction of American-origin drones to the Navy has come under the emergency procurement powers granted by the defense ministry in view of the India-China border conflict. The sources told ANI that the drones have already started flying operations and with an endurance capability of being in the air for over 30 hours, they are proving to be a big asset for the maritime force. 

Sources quoted by the news agency said India will be acquiring 18 more such drones from the US. The option of leasing weapon systems has been provisioned under the Defense Acquisition Procedure-2020 and the Defense Procurement Manual -2009 to help save funds. Under these norms, the responsibility of maintenance also lies with the vendor, the sources said.

These would be the first of its kind armed MALE RPA (Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft) in the Indian service, with an internal one named TAPAS-BH (aka Rustom-II) being developed by the DRDO.

An American crew from the vendor, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, is also accompanying the equipment and would help the Navy to operate the machines. According to the lease agreement, the American support staff will only help in the maintenance and technical issues whereas the sortie planning and the joystick control would be with the Indian Navy personnel, the sources said.

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The sources have also underlined that the data gathered by the drones during the flight would be the exclusive property of the Indian Navy.

The US diplomats had wanted the SkyGuardian deal to be the highlight of their visit to India as the earlier proposal had called for the sales of 30 MQ-9B armed SkyGuardian drones, 10 for each service. Under the previous proposal, the costs incurred would have been Rs 900 crore per unit along with a 10 percent additional annual maintenance cost, and the deal would have given no transfer of technology or offsets.

Amid the border tensions with China, India has witnessed support from the US. The BECA signed during the top diplomats’ visit is aimed at strengthening military ties between New Delhi and Washington.