Security concerns stall India’s MQ-9B drone purchase?

Team Udayavani, Feb 10, 2024, 6:35 PM IST

The US-India deal for sale of 31 MQ-9B Sky Guardian drones worth $3.99 billion (about Rs 33,000 crore)—including 170 Hellfire missiles, 310 laser-guided bombs, GPS and navigation systems and other gear—is nearing completion. India needs these 31 MQ-9B drones to keep an eye on the Indian Ocean and the skies near China and Pakistan.

The US State Department has given its approval for the potential sale of MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft and related equipment to the Government of India. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) officially notified Congress about this potential sale on Thursday (February 1, 2024). A US Embassy spokesperson said the proposed sale would now be reviewed by Congress. This will take around 30 days. After the review is completed, India and the US can finalize the sale by signing a letter of offer and acceptance (LoOA).

The fact that these drones come with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs shows they are ready for combat. However, India has expressed concerns over the US Defense Department’s public disclosure of specifics regarding the count of Hellfire missiles and guided bombs to be provided along with the 31 MQ-9 Sky Guardian drones. India is worried because revealing details about the drones and their weapons could let its enemies, especially Pakistan, know how strong India’s drone power is.

Reports say that Pakistan got around 6-7 Bayraktar Akinci drones from Turkey, but neither country has confirmed this. Pakistan is, possibly, getting these drones ready to use near Lahore, but what missiles and weapons these drones have and how many were received, have not been shared publicly. Interestingly, while Pakistan has not officially confirmed any agreement with Turkey regarding the Bayraktar drones, evidence of the deal surfaced through the patches seen on the Bayraktar TB2 drones during a military drill.

US Senator Ben Cardin had proposed a hold on the proposed US sale of 31 MQ-9B High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UACVs) to India—comprising 15 for the Indian Navy, 8 for the Indian Air Force and 8 for the Indian Army, estimated at $3.99 billion (approximately Rs33,000 crore). This sprang from concerns over the alleged plot to kill founder of the separatist Khalistani organization, ‘Sikhs for Justice’, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil and India’s ‘high-level’ investigation into it. But, despite this, reports have emerged that the deal has been briefed to the US legislature.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US last year, India and the US had talked about the sale of the MQ-9B Predator drones, which are combat drones based on the Reaper model. The US State Department has shared these details with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the company that makes these drones. The US State Department says the MQ-9B drone deal will make the partnership between India and the US stronger, helping keep the peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific area and South Asia. These drones are also important for watching over the sea and dealing with possible dangers.

Versatile UAVs for Maritime & Surveillance: The MQ-9B is a version of the MQ-9 ‘Reaper’, which is a well-known drone used by the US to eliminate Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda. The previous Predator models were replaced by the MQ-9 Reaper, also known as the Predator B, in 2007. The MQ-9B has two variants: the SkyGuardian and the SeaGuardian.

The primary purpose of the SkyGuardian variant is general surveillance and intelligence gathering, rather than being specifically designed for maritime operations like the SeaGuardian. The SkyGuardian can be equipped with advanced sensor technologies, such as electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) cameras, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment.

The SkyGuardian variant offers long-lasting surveillance capabilities suitable for various purposes, including border surveillance, reconnaissance and target tracking. Depending on its configuration, it can remain airborne for up to 40 hours, utilizing satellite communication. It is specifically designed to operate effectively in all-weather conditions and has the capability to safely navigate through civilian airspace.

The SeaGuardian variant is specifically optimized for conducting operations in maritime environments. It is equipped with specialized features and equipment tailored for anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare missions. These features encompass an automatic identification system and 360° surface search maritime radar, besides sonobuoy monitoring system and dispensers. These capabilities enable the SeaGuardian to effectively detect and track surface vessels and submarines in maritime environments.

Sonobuoys are compact and disposable devices used for detecting and monitoring underwater sounds. They are deployed from aircraft or ships into the water and are designed to detect various acoustic signals, including those generated by submarines or marine mammals. Sonobuoys are equipped with hydrophones, which are underwater microphones, as well as other sensors to collect acoustic data. The information collected by sonobuoys helps in underwater surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and scientific research in the fields of oceanography and marine life.

According to General Atomics, the manufacturer, the MQ-9B offers approximately 80% of the capabilities of a large manned maritime patrol aircraft but at a significantly lower cost per hour, estimated to be around 20%, which makes it an attractive option. The MQ-9B, such as the SeaGuardian, can be deployed to cover extensive areas of air or sea. If any noteworthy findings are detected, a manned aircraft can be subsequently dispatched, thus saving time and expenses and reducing wear on crewed aircraft.

These UAVs can help minimize damage to manned aircraft of the Indian Navy and reduce crew fatigue. By using the MQ-9B, the wear and tear of the Indian Navy’s fleet of 12 P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft can be substantially brought down. Besides, these UAVs can act as an eye in the sky over the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and even beyond, helping monitor activities without causing excessive strain to the navy’s crew.

The MQ-9B offers continuous surveillance capabilities that provide benefits to both the Army and Air Force, extending beyond traditional borders. For instance, they can use these UAVs to monitor Chinese military buildup and troop movements along the line-of-actual control (LAC), even in the remote, mountainous areas. In such terrain, their primary work is to gather intelligence on possible threats and movements deep behind the enemy lines.

The MQ-9B blends easily with other US-manufactured platforms that are already in India’s possession, such as the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, P-8Is, MH-60R multi-role helicopters and others. By seamlessly integrating with various systems and platforms, the MQ-9B is able to enhance its capabilities and effectively carry out diverse missions in different domains.

By Girish Linganna

(The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach out to him at: [email protected])

Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions expressed in this article are solely those of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Udayavani. The publication holds no legal responsibility for the content presented.

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