Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden announced the much-awaited mega deal of General Atomics MQ-9B HALE UAVs on 22 June in Washington. The White House Joint Statement said, “President Biden and Prime Minister Modi welcomed India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B HALE UAVs. The MQ-9Bs, which will be assembled in India, will enhance the ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities of India’s armed forces across domains. As part of this plan, General Atomics will also establish a Comprehensive Global MRO facility in India to support of India’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defence capabilities.”
San Diego-based General Atomics will also set up a global maintenance and repair facility in India “to support India’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defence capabilities,” the statement said.
Reacting to the drone pact, Vivek Lall, the Chief Executive of General Atomics Global Corporation, called the decision to acquire MQ-9B reaper drones for the Indian Armed Forces a breakthrough moment for the India-US strategic partnership. He said, “PM Modi and President Biden have significantly enhanced the relationship by deciding to acquire MQ9B for the Indian military. This is a breakthrough moment for the India-US partnership, and General Atomics is pleased to be a major contributor in taking it to the next level.”
On 15 June last week, the Ministry of Defence approved the acquisition of MQ-9B armed drones from the US during a Defence Acquisition Council meeting chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The procurement of these drones holds significance as the Indian government aims to use them to ramp up its surveillance apparatus along the frontier with China and the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
Although the Indian Defence Ministry has not yet disclosed the number of drones to be acquired, with varying estimates ranging from 31 to 18, there was no official word from the Ministry on the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) about the inter-governmental agreement. But sources in the MoD said the induction of the 31 high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) Predator-B drones – 15 for the Indian Navy, 8 each for the Army and Air Force have been planned.
It is worth noting that the QUAD countries (US, India, Japan, & Australia) have all operated or currently operate the MQ-9Bs SeaGuardian drones. India presently leases MQ-9Bs for intelligence-gathering operations.
The Navy has deployed two unarmed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, on lease from General Atomics from September 2020, for surveillance missions in the Indian Ocean Region. These drones boast an impressive range of 5,500 nautical miles and can remain airborne for up to 35 hours. Their primary purpose has been to conduct surveillance missions, including monitoring troop deployments and infrastructure upgrades along the borders with China. These deployments hold particular significance due to the ongoing military standoff between India and China in eastern Ladakh.