India, US continue to hold negotiations on Predator drone deal

External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said the US has its internal processes in place for such supplies and New Delhi is respectful of that.

New Delhi: India and the US are continuing to hold negotiations to firm up a USD 3 billion deal for supply of 31 MQ-9B Predator long endurance drones to Indian armed forces and the US Congress is set to favourably consider it soon, people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

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External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said the US has its internal processes in place for such supplies and New Delhi is respectful of that.

“This particular matter relates to the US side. They have their internal processes in place and we are respectful of that. That is where I would like to leave my comment,” he said at a media briefing.

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His comments came in response to a volley of questions on the timeline for the US Congressional approval as well as a media report that said Washington blocked the drone sale to India until New Delhi carries out a thorough probe into an Indian link to the failed plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

It is learnt that the US State Department has already apprised several key American lawmakers in the US Congress about the mega deal and there have been indications that it is unlikely to face any hurdle.

The people cited above said the Biden administration is likely to notify the US Congress on its plan to supply the drones to India soon and it could happen in the next few days.

“We continue to discuss with the US Congress the potential sale consistent with standard processes and policies guiding such arm sales decisions,” a US embassy spokesperson said on Wednesday.

“As part of the standard process, the State Department routinely engages Congressional foreign affairs committees prior to formal notification to address questions from committee staff,” the official said.

The drone deal was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in June last year.

In November last, the US federal prosecutors accused Indian national Nikhil Gupta of working with an Indian government employee in the foiled plot to kill Pannun, who holds dual citizenship of the US and Canada.

India has already constituted a probe committee to investigate allegations.

Pannun, a leader of the so called ‘Sikhs for Justice’, is wanted by Indian probe agencies on various terror charges.

State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said the drone deal offers significant potential to further advance bilateral strategic technology cooperation.

“Of course, Congress plays an important role in the US arms transfer process. We routinely consult with members of Congress on the foreign affairs committees before our formal notification so we can address questions that they might have, but I don’t have any comment on when that formal notification might take place,” he said on Wednesday.

“This is a proposed sale that was announced during Prime Minister Modi’s visit last year. We believe it offers significant potential to further advance strategic technology cooperation with India and military cooperation in the region,” he said.

American and India government officials have been holding a series of negotiations on the proposed procurement after Washington responded to New Delhi’s Letter of Request (LoR) for acquisition of the platforms from US defence major General Atomics (GA).

India is procuring the long-endurance ‘hunter-killer’ drones to crank up the surveillance apparatus of the armed forces, especially along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

Though the cost of the drones will be finalised in the negotiation process, it is estimated that the price of the procurement would be around USD 3 billion.

The proposed procurement figured in US Defence Secretary Lloyd J Austin’s talks with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh in Delhi in November.

The Defence Acquisition Council headed by Singh on June 15 last year accorded the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) or initial approval for acquisition of 31 MQ-9B drones from the US under the foreign military sale (FMS) route.

While the Navy will get 15 Sea Guardian drones, the Indian Air Force and the Army will each get eight Sky Guardian drones.

The high-altitude long-endurance drones are capable of remaining airborne for over 35 hours and can carry four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kgs of bombs.

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