Indian Armed Forces Eyeing Armed Predator Drones from US

Defence Industry

New Delhi: With continuing threat on the Northern borders with China and in the West with Pakistan, the Indian armed forces are seeking 18 armed Predator MQ 9A drones from the US, and electronic and spatial intelligence organisation NTRO will soon acquire eight Indian-manufactured medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drones for border surveillance and reconnaissance, sources said.

While Indian Navy already has two General Atomics-manufactured Sea Guardian (MQ 9B) drones for maritime domain awareness on lease from the US, the acquisition of 18 armed drones on a government-to-government basis — with each of the three services getting six drones — will be put up before the Modi government at the Combined Commanders Conference at Karwar Naval Base in April, the sources said. The conference, which will be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was shifted from March to April due to logistical requirements.

Though the navy, which is the leading service in armed drone acquisition and deployment, earlier projected the requirement of 30 drones at cost of $3 billion, the number was pruned to 18 after operational analysis, mission requirements, and force projection due diligence by the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC).

Incidentally, the Indian Embassy in Washington hosted Neal Blue, chairman, General Atomics, and Dr Vivek Lall, CEO, General Atomics, among other top CEOs at a dinner in honour of US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan during NSA Ajit Doval’s visit to the US on February 3-4. It was during this visit that the White House announced a path-breaking high-technology partnership with India.

While India has acquired the capability to build MALE reconnaissance and surveillance drones with the help of Israel in a joint venture in Gujarat, the Indian military needs armed drones since both China and Pakistan have the Wing Loong II armed drones in their arsenals. Also, the lease for the two Sea Guardian drones runs out early next year but will likely be extended given its high-definition imagery, long endurance, and other surveillance capabilities.

The Indian Navy also used the Sea Guardian drones and the Boeing P-8I multi-mission aircraft to scan the entire 3,044 km Line of Actual Control with China to understand the military preparations made by the PLA. This has given the Indian military a clear idea of the Chinese army’s plans and capabilities.

Though some national security planners feel the Predator-armed drone is prohibitively expensive, and find US-made manned Boeing P-8I aircraft sufficient for the job, the Indian military wants a mix of both armed and surveillance drones for country-specific missions. The Predator armed drone can fly up to 50,000 feet for up to 24 hours, and carries an option of Hellfire air-to-ground missiles for high-value targets or air-to-air missiles to bring down aerial enemy targets.