Washington: The US on Thursday approved the sale of 31 MQ-9B armed drones to India at an estimated cost of USD 3.99 billion, an acquisition that will bolster India’s capability to meet current and future threats by enabling unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation.
The proposed mega drone deal was announced during the historic State Visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi here in June 2023.
“The State Department has made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the Government of India of MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft and related equipment for an estimated cost of USD 3.99 billion,” the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said here in a statement.
The Agency said it has delivered the required certification notifying Congress of this possible sale on Thursday.
“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by helping to strengthen the US-Indian strategic relationship and to improve the security of a major defence partner, which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region,” the agency said.
“The proposed sale will improve India’s capability to meet current and future threats by enabling unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation,” it said.
India is procuring the long-endurance drones to bolster the surveillance capabilities of its armed forces, especially along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.
Under the deal, India will get 31 High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs, of which the Navy will get 15 SeaGuardian drones, while the Army and the Indian Air Force will get eight each of the land version SkyGuardian.
Applauding that India has demonstrated a commitment to modernising its military, the DSCA said, the South Asian country will have no difficulty absorbing these articles and services into its armed forces.
“The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region,” it said and added, “There will be no adverse impact on US defence readiness as a result of this proposed sale.”
The principal contractor will be General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
Earlier on Wednesday, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said, “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.”
His comments came in response to a question on the timeline for the US Congressional approval as well as a media report that said Washington had blocked the drone sale to India until New Delhi carried out a thorough probe into an Indian link to the failed plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
American and Indian government officials have been holding a series of negotiations on the proposed procurement after Washington responded to New Delhi’s Letter of Request for the acquisition of the drones from US defence major General Atomics.
The proposed procurement had also 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 or initial approval for the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B drones from the US under the foreign military sale route.
The SeaGuardian drones are being procured for the three services as they can carry out a variety of roles including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and over-the-horizon targeting, among others.
The High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) 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 SeaGuardian drones from General Atomics for one year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The lease period has been extended subsequently.