Eye on China: A $3 billion US drone acquisition heads for MoD approval

A case for the purchase of 30 MQ-9B Guardians will shortly be put up before the Defence Acquisition Council, headed by defence minister Rajnath Singh. Six drones will be delivered soon after contract signing  

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is preparing to acquire 30 General Atomics MQ-9B Guardian drones from the United States, in a deal valued at approximately $3 billion (Rs 22,000 crore). A recent series of meetings within the MoD have cleared the way for the procurement of an initial lot of six Reaper Medium Altitude Long Endurance drones. These six drones—two each for the army, navy and air force—are to be procured immediately from the US, indicating the urgency of the acquisition.

Sources tell INDIA TODAY that an ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AON) for 30 drones will be put before an upcoming meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), headed by defence minister Rajnath Singh. The contract is being broken up into two parts—six MQ-9s worth approximately $600 million (Rs 4,400 crore) are to be purchased outright and delivered in the next few months. The remaining 24—eight drones for each service—will be acquired over the next three years under an ‘option clause’ in the contract. The deal has been in the pipeline for the past three years, first as the sale of 22 Sea Guardians (an unarmed maritime variant of the MQ-9) for the Indian Navy in 2017. This was then converted into a tri-services acquisition by the government in 2018 when the armed version of the MQ-9 was cleared for sale to India by the US.

An AON is formally the first step in hardware procurement by the MoD. It usually takes several years for AON cases to turn into contracts. The MQ-9 acquisition, it is understood, will be concluded in a far shorter timeframe. It is being processed as a fast-track, government-to-government deal with the United States and will be swiftly concluded by the MoD. The six drones are to be delivered immediately by the US, and could possibly be units already produced for the US armed forces or its allies. It is not clear if the initial batch of drones will be armed with Hellfire missiles and other air-to-ground munitions.

MoD meetings to decide the deal are being steered by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, who, as permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, decides inter-service defence acquisitions. The MoD might even convene a special meeting of the DAC to sanction this deal. This is the last major contract signed between the governments of Prime Minister Modi and US President Donald Trump, who is seeking re-election this November.

The Indian Navy has been made the lead service for this significant acquisition. One naval officer calls the deal a ‘game changer’ because of the platform’s ability to mount continuous and persistent surveillance. The MQ-9 can carry electro-optical / infra-red multi-mode radar and multi-mode maritime surveillance radar, laser designators, electronic support measures and various weapons packages. It can form a deadly combination with two other US-supplied platforms—the P8-I Poseidon long range maritime patrol aircraft and the (under delivery) MH-60R multi-role helicopters— to track and hunt surface ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean region.

“The MQ-9 is satellite-steered, can float above the target at 45,000 feet and stay on task for 35 hours, using radar and electronic support measures to locate the enemy—it could be anywhere, the Gulf of Aden or the Malacca Straits or in Eastern Ladakh,” a senior defence official says.

The United States has emerged as India’s largest supplier of defence hardware after Russia, selling India a total of $18 billion worth of military hardware since 2008. In February this year, the two countries concluded a $2.1 billion deal for India to buy 24 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters for the Indian Navy.

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