NEW DELHI: India has inducted two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones for top-notch surveillance missions on lease from an American firm, in a huge capability jump for the armed forces amidst the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh.
The two unarmed Sea Guardians, variants of the iconic armed Predator drones, have already kicked off long-range ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) missions over
the Indian Ocean Region
(IOR) from naval air station INS Rajali at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu, said defence ministry sources on Wednesday.
“The drones can also be deployed along the Line of Actual Control with China if required. The naval P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, for instance, are already being extensively used along the land border to keep tabs on the People’s Liberation Army,” said a source.
Picture courtesy: General Atomics
The lease of the two drones from US firm General Atomics is seen as a prelude to India’s plan to buy 18 to 30 ‘hunter-killer’ weaponized Sea Guardian or MQ-9 Reaper drones, with possible fast-track procurement of six of them, as was first reported by TOI.
The two Sea Guardians have been taken on a one-year lease from American firm General Atomics, which can be extended for another year. The lease is yet another strong indicator of the continuing strategic partnership between India and the US despite the impending change from the Trump to the Biden administration.
As it is, the US is closely cooperating with India in the intelligence-sharing and other domains in view of the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh, much like it did during the Doklam face-off in June-August 2017.
“The two drones, inducted under the Navy’s emergency procurement powers granted by the defence ministry, began their ISR missions on November 21. They are doing extremely well,” said the source.
Though there is an American crew for maintenance, technical and training purposes,
the Indian Navy
is totally in control of the operations and the huge amount of data being generated in the ISR missions, as per the lease agreement.
“The intelligence data from the two drones is being fed into the NCO (network-centric operations) network of the Navy. General Atomics has to ensure a minimum number of flying hours by the drones every month. The Navy does not have to set up infrastructure or make provisions for spares,” said the source.
With a maximum range of 5,500 nautical miles and an endurance of 35 hours, the Navy can deploy the Sea Guardians to monitor all the “choke points” from
the Persian Gulf
to Malacca Strait in the IOR.
The new Defence Acquisition Procedure, in force from October 1, as well as the older Defence Procurement Manual enables swifter leasing of military equipment and platforms for urgent operational requirements. It cuts down time delays and initial capital cost for inductions.
The IAF is also finalizing a plan to “dry lease” or acquire six “pre-owned” mid-air refueling aircraft to extend the reach of its fighter jets. Though IAF overall needs 18 such “force-multipliers”, it is currently making do with just six IL-78 aircraft inducted in 2003-2004.
India, incidentally, has inked defence deals over $21 billion with the US just since 2007, with the two latest contracts worth $3 billion for 24 MH-60 `Romeo’ naval helicopters and six Apache attack choppers being sealed during US President Donald Trump’s visit to India in February.
Moreover, the combination of two of the four foundational pacts inked with the US -- the Communications, Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA)in 2018 and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) last month -- has paved the way for India to acquire armed drones like Reapers or Predators for long-range precision strikes against hostile targets on land and sea.