India is in the advanced stage of talks with the US government to procure MQ-9B drones to upgrade the overall surveillance apparatus along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and in the Indian Ocean

Aiming to upgrade the overall surveillance apparatus along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China and in the Indian Ocean, India is in the advanced stage of negotiating with the US to procure 30 MQ-9B Predator armed drones at a cost of over USD 3 billion, people familiar with the development informed on Sunday.

The drones are well equipped to assist the defence forces in a variety of duties including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, over-the-horizon targeting and hitting stationary ground targets. The long-endurance-hunter-killer drones are being procured for the three defence services.

The MQ-9B drone is a variant of MQ-9 “Reaper” that was reportedly used to fire a modified version of the Hellfire missile which eliminated al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul last month.

Authoritative sources in the defence establishment said that talks between New Delhi and Washington are underway between the states for the procurement of the drones manufactured by US defence major General Atomics, and rejected reports that the deal is off the table.

The information about acquisition is at the advanced stage with discussions between the two governments was given by Dr Vivek Lall, Chief Executive for the General Atomics Global Corporation.

He said, “We understand that the MQ-9B acquisition programme is at an advanced stage of discussion between the US and Indian governments.”

“Any questions on those discussions should be addressed specifically to the respective governments. From a company perspective, General Atomics is ready to support India and values our long time relationship,” Lall added.

The sources said the talks are focused on sorting out certain issues relating to cost component, weapons package and technology sharing.

The fourth two-plus-two foreign and defence ministerial dialogue between India and the US in Washington in April witnessed the proposal for negotiations for the procurement of the drones.

India’s Experience With MQ-9B

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.

With frequent interference from the Chinese side, the Indian Navy has been bolstering its surveillance mechanism. The aim is to monitor growing Chinese activities including frequent forays by PLA warships in the Indian Ocean Region.

When asked about the two drones that had been acquired on lease and are operational, Lall said they have performed “very well” and flew close to 3,000 hours in support of the Indian Navy’s maritime and land border patrol objectives, covering over 14 million square miles of operating area.

“General Atomics has supported India over the past three years by providing two MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft as part of a company owned/company operated (COCO) lease agreement,” he said.

The MQ-9Bs are designed to not only meet the standards of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) but also to comply with civil airspace requirements in the US and around the world, according to General Motors.

The procurement proposal has been moved by the Indian Navy and all three services are likely to get 10 drones each.

The medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone is the first hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for long-endurance and high-altitude surveillance, with the capability of remaining airborne for around 35 hours.

Following the eastern Ladakh standoff with China, Indian armed forces have been focusing on procuring unmanned platforms including armed drones. In 2019, the US approved the sale of armed drones to India and even offered integrated air and missile defence systems.

In February 2020, India sealed a USD 2.6 billion (one billion=100 crores) deal with the US for the procurement of 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters from American aerospace major Lockheed Martin for the Indian Navy. The delivery of the helicopters has already begun.

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