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EFSAS Commentary

The US’s sale of Predator drones to India: a reaffirmation of strong bilateral ties that provides New Delhi key strategic benefits


Media reports last week informed that the United States (US) State Department had approved the potential sale of 31 armed MQ-9B Predator drones and other equipment to India for nearly $4 billion. The Predator drone deal had been announced during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June 2023. The deal will now be confirmed after it obtained approval from the US Congress this week. The sale of the advanced and time-tested Predator drones is primarily aimed at enhancing India’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, particularly along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, as well as in the seas and oceans in India’s periphery.

Announcing the deal, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement that “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 Agency said it had delivered the required certification notifying the US Congress of this possible sale on 1 February. It added, “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”. It concluded that “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”.

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. According to details sent by the Biden Administration to the US Congress, the MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones being sold to India would be equipped with highly sensitive surveillance and lethal attack equipment, including hellfire missiles and laser small diameter bombs. Addressed to Senator Ben Cardin, who is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the letter of the Biden Administration was tabled on the Senate floor on 5 February.

Lalit K. Jha wrote for the Press Trust of India (PTI) that “As per the letter, which has a significant classified section given the nature of the defence equipment and technology, the 31 SkyGuardian drones, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, along with the services and equipment is being sold to India at an estimated cost of USD3.9 billion. The 31 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones itself costs USD 1.70 billion, while the rest of the services including technology and equipment is estimated to cost USD 2.29 billion. In addition to 31 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones, the proposed deal includes 161 Embedded Global Positioning and Inertial Navigation Systems (EGIs), 35 L3 Rio Grande Communications Intelligence Sensor Suites. It includes 170 AGM-114R Hellfire Missiles, 16 M36E9 Hellfire Captive Air Training Missiles, 310 GBU-39B/B Laser Small Diameter Bombs (LSDB) and eight GBU-39B/B LSDB Guided Test Vehicles (GTVs) with live fuzes. These prices are subject to further negotiations by the Indian Government”.

The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency informed Congress that the MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) is a weapons-ready aircraft designed for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); Target Acquisition; and Strike Missions. Further it is a highly modular, easily configurable aircraft that contains the necessary hard points, power, and data connections to accommodate a variety of payloads and munitions to meet multiple missions –including counter-land, counter-sea, and anti-submarine strike operations. It will be equipped with MX-20HD gyro-stabilized, multi-spectral, multi-field-of-view (FOV) Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) targeting system, which provides surveillance laser illumination and laser designation through use of an externally mounted turret sensor unit and internally mounted master control. Informing the Congress that the Ground Control Station (GCS) in the system can be either fixed or mobile, the US Government added that the L3 Rio Grande capabilities meet rigorous mission requirements for small, manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

The AGM-114R Hellfire missile in these drones would be equipped with a Semi-Active Laser (SAL) and can be launched from higher altitudes than previous variants because of its enhanced guidance and navigation capabilities, which include a Height-of-Burst (HOB) proximity sensor. With its multi-purpose warhead, the missile can destroy hard, soft, and enclosed targets.

The GBU-39B/B Laser Small Diameter Bomb (LSDB) All Up Round (AUR) to be installed in these drones is a 250-pound OPS and semi-active laser-guided, small autonomous, day or night, adverse weather, conventional, air-to-ground precision glide weapon capable of striking fixed and stationary, re-locatable, and non-hardened targets from standoff ranges. According to Congressional documents, the LSDB's laser guidance set enables the weapon to strike moving targets. It is intended to provide aircraft with an ability to carry a high number of bombs. Aircraft are able to carry four LSDBs in place of one 2,000-pound bomb.

The Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder provides maritime patrol and Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft with the ability to track and identify AIS-equipped vessels over a dedicated very high frequency (VHF) data link. Notably, AIS is a key component of any maritime ISR network and offers maritime authorities with the ability to better coordinate air and sea search, rescue, surveillance, and interdiction operations. The MQ-9B Predator is capable of automatic take-offs and landings, providing operational flexibility. Moreover, it can safely integrate into civil airspace, enabling joint forces and civil authorities to obtain real-time situational awareness in the maritime domain, day or night.

In addition to the array of modern features, speed and firepower that it has, what makes the MQ-9B Predator the most sought-after drone is its ability to operate with pin-drop silence. The stealth feature of the drone makes it stand out from the competition. A drone can fly as close to 250 meters above the ground without the target even having an inkling it is there unless spotted. The drone can fly higher than a commercial aircraft, around 50,000 feet above the ground, and has a top speed of 275 mph or 442 km/h. Another feature it boasts is its ability to be deployed on lengthy missions in any weather. A Predator drone can carry around 1,700 kg of payload, including four missiles and about 450 kg of bombs, and travel 2,000 miles without the need to refuel. The drone can fly continuously or hover over targets for up to 35 hours, according to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, its manufacturer.

Apart from air-to-air missiles, the drone can also be equipped with air-to-ground missiles, making it unique. The SeaGuardian, the Predator's naval variant, has a 360-degree surface-search maritime radar, and sonobuoy monitoring system, enabling it to be deployed for anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare missions. The drone system is also economical. The MQ-9B can match 80 per cent of the capability of a manned patrol aircraft at about 20 per cent of its cost per hour, according to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

The Pentagon, however, did not share all the information in the non-classified domain, noting that the highest level of classification of defense articles, components, and services included in this potential sale was secret. It underlined that “If a technologically advanced adversary were to obtain knowledge of the specific hardware and software elements, the information could be used to develop countermeasures that might reduce weapon system effectiveness or be used in the development of a system with similar or advanced capabilities”. Further, the notification told the Congress that a determination had been made that India can provide substantially the same degree of protection for the sensitive technology being released as the US Government.

Senator Ben Cardin, according to Reuters news agency, said he had ended his “hold” on the agreement for the deal after the US government agreed to fully investigate an alleged assassination plot by an Indian national targeting a US citizen of Indian origin who advocates for Khalistan - an independent Sikh state carved out of India. Cardin told reporters that “The (Biden) administration has demanded that there be investigation and accountability in regards to the plot here in the United States, and that there is accountability within India against these types of activities”. A US government spokesperson has said that the US had “conveyed our expectations that anyone deemed responsible should be held accountable”, and India’s decision to form a high-level inquiry committee “to investigate the allegation and address the US government’s security concerns” appears to have taken much of the sting out of the matter. Both the US and India have come out of the Predator drone deal appearing keen not to let a single incident cloud the momentum built up in the bilateral relationship over the past several decades.

India is not alien to using the Predator drones. After Indian troops clashed with Chinese Army personnel in the Galwan Valley during the height of their border standoff in eastern Ladakh, the Indian government had taken two MQ-9B drones on lease from the US for a year. As Shishir Gupta described in his 2 February article in The Hindustan Times titled ‘Why Indian Predator drone will be a game-changer against adversaries’, “The Narendra Modi government’s interest in acquiring US Predator MQ-9B armed drone grew after the national security planners saw the crystal clear images of Chinese military capabilities across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) taken by the same drones leased to Indian Navy post-PLA aggression on East Ladakh in May 2020. It was the surveillance footage of the leased SkyGuardian (unarmed version of MQ 9B) drones and Indian Navy’s Boeing P8I multi-mission aircraft that India got actionable intelligence on the PLA military capabilities, missiles silos, rocket system deployments and troops movement all along the 3488 km long LAC. This vital information helped national security planners in the counter-deployment to not only keep the PLA at bay but also surprise it in the worst-case scenario”.

There is little doubt that the proposed purchase of Predator drones is aimed at bolstering India’s defense capabilities amid China’s growing assertiveness. India has been eager to modernize its military, and these multi-operation drones can be a boost for India’s surveillance and deterrence capabilities along both its China and Pakistan borders. While China and Pakistan both have armed drones in their inventories, the US MQ-9B, with its proven missiles and bombs, possesses what Gupta described as “the next level of strike capability”. He assessed that India’s “military capability will multiply manifolds in the Indo-Pacific as the hunter-killer drone allows India to project power thousands of kilometers away from its borders. Not only will the Indian Navy with its 15 drones have max maritime domain awareness in the region but it also has the deterrence to challenge any expansionist Navy in the region with its array of sub-surface, surface and aerial platforms”. The drones will be used to keep an eye on Chinese activity in the strategically important Indian Ocean Region.

Beyond China, with the drones in its arsenal India will also be able to launch remote-controlled operations on terrorist hideouts. Gupta believes that “the high altitude long endurance Predator drone is a different level altogether as it is a proven system with the legacy of Afghan and Iraq wars. Pakistan has a fair idea of the drone’s capabilities as Akhtar Mansour, the second Supreme Leader of the Taliban, was killed in a US Predator drone strike in Balochistan on May 21, 2016, through AGM-114 R Hell-Fire air-to-ground missile. As per the US State Department notification, India is buying 170 Hell-Fire missiles with an 11-kilometer range and 310 Laser Guided Bombs with a nearly 150 kilometer range. This means that India’s counter-terrorism capabilities will also increase manifolds as intruders can be targeted without crossing the borders”.

Even beyond these significant strategic gains, India, as also the US, will be content that the sale of the drones should kick-start a phase in bilateral relations that allows both sides to put recent irritants behind them and work towards further cementing the growing strategic bonhomie they have evolved in recent years.