NEW DELHI: The defence ministry on Thursday approved the major acquisition of 31 weaponised Predator or MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from the US, clearing the decks for the formal announcement of the mega project during PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington next week.
The Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC), chaired by defence minister Rajnath Singh, accorded the initial ‘acceptance of necessity (AoN)’ to the estimated $3.5 billion (almost Rs 29,000 crore) procurement of the ‘hunter-killer drones’, which will be under the FMS (foreign military sales) programme of the US government, top sources told TOI.
There was no official word from the MoD on the DAC approval or the exact contours of the proposed inter-governmental agreement. But sources said the induction of the 31 high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) Predator-B drones — 15 for the Navy and eight each for the Army and IAF – is planned in stages. “The deal will involve setting up MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) facilities in India,” a source said. India will now issue an actionable LoR (letter of request) to the US government, which in turn will respond with a LoA (letter of acceptance). “The final clearance, of course, will have to come from our CCS (cabinet committee on security) before the actual contract is inked,” the source said.
With China supplying armed Cai Hong-4 and Wing Loong-II drones to Pakistan, the Indian armed forces have for long wanted the fighter-sized Predators, armed with air-to-ground missiles and smart bombs as well as capable of flying for 35 hours at a stretch, to boost their long-range surveillance and strike capabilities both in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and along the land borders.
Only some NATO countries and close military allies of the US have the Predator drones manufactured by General Atomics. Such armed drones, like manned fighters, are capable of firing missiles and precision-guided munitions on enemy targets before returning to their home bases to re-arm for their next mission.
Since September 2020, the Navy has been using two unarmed SeaGuardian drones on lease for top-notch ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions in the IOR.
The drones, which have a maximum range of 5,500 nautical miles and can fly at an altitude of over 40,000-feet, have also been effectively deployed to monitor Chinese military activities along the Line of Actual Control amid the continuing military confrontation in eastern Ladakh, which is into its fourth year now.
As reported by TOI earlier, the pact between General Electric and defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics to co-produce GE-F414 turbofan engines to power indigenous Tejas Mark-2 fighters is also set to be formally announced during the PM’s visit to the US.
The inking of the bilateral defence pacts with the US, especially COMCASA (Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement) in 2018 and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) in 2020, has paved the way for India to get greater access to advanced military technologies with encrypted secure communications and data links.
The MQ-9B drones, with their cutting-edge avionics and ground control systems, have COMCASA-protected equipment like advanced Global Positioning System (GPS), Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) receiver and VHF system, which are immune to jamming and spoofing from enemies.
The US, incidentally, has already bagged lucrative Indian defence deals worth over $21 billion just since 2007. India has bought C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlifters, C-130J Super Hercules planes and M-777 ultralight howitzers, among others, through the FMS route because it is considered cleaner and faster than defence deals through global tenders and competition.





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