MQ-9B Predator Drone Deal Likely to be Finalised by India, US Early Next Year

Defence Industry

New Delhi: With the US Congress expected to clear the supplies in the next few weeks, India is looking at sealing a landmark deal to procure 31 MQ-9B Predator armed drones from the US under a government-to-government framework by March, according to a news agency report. Citing people familiar with the matter, the news agency report mentions that the American and Indian government officials will hold the final series of negotiations on the procurement after Washington responds to India’s Letter of Request (LoR) for the acquisition of drones from US defence major General Atomics (GA).

The long-endurance ‘hunter-killer’ drones is being procured by India to power the surveillance apparatus of the armed forces, especially along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. The procurement would cost around USD 3 billion as per estimates, though the price of the drones will be finalised during the negotiation process.

According to the people cited by the news agency said New Delhi and Washington will depute their respective teams to firm up the deal including finalising the cost and other nitty-gritty. The aim is to seal the deal by March next year. As part of the laid down process, the agreement will be between the Indian government and American authorities and the Pentagon will convey to General Atomics about the requirement of the Indian armed forces, they added.

During US Defence Secretary Lloyd J Austin’s talks with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Delhi earlier this month, it is understood that the issue of India’s proposed procurement of the drones figured in the talks.

At a media briefing, Austin said that it will be announced at the right time in response to a query regarding the procurement finalisation. He said, “Well, again, you know, we’ve — at the right time, we’ll announce the (deal). I think the government, the officials in the government are doing everything necessary to make sure that that capability… you (India) get that capability as quickly as possible.”

The Sea Guardian drones can carry out a variety of roles, including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and over-the-horizon targeting and are being procured for the three services. While the Navy will get 15 Sea Guardian drones, the Indian Air Force and the Army will each get eight Sky Guardian drones.

Known for its high-altitude long-endurance, MQ-9B drones are capable of remaining airborne for over 35 hours and can carry four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kgs of bombs. In 2020, the Indian Navy had taken on lease two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics for a period of one year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The lease period has been extended subsequently.

On June 15, the Defence Acquisition Council headed by Singh accorded the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) or initial approval for the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B drones from the US under the foreign military sale (FMS) route. In June, both sides also reached an agreement under which American aerospace major General Electric will partner with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd to produce jet engines for Indian military aircraft in India.

In the last few years, the India-US defence cooperation has been on an upswing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden in their over 50-minute talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Delhi, vowed to “deepen and diversify” the bilateral major defence partnership while welcoming forward movement in India’s procurement of 31 drones and joint development of jet engines. The US designated India a “Major Defence Partner” in June 2016, paving the way for sharing of critical military equipment and technology.