As part of UAV deal with U.S. firm, India is expected to develop some components locally

Drone maker General Atomics has responded positively to the suggestion, say defence officials; there is scope to locally manufacture some of the electronics, sensors and avionics of the UAV

June 25, 2023 02:55 am | Updated 09:50 pm IST - NEW DELHI

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle developed by General Atomics is displayed during the International Paris Air Show on June 21, 2023

An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle developed by General Atomics is displayed during the International Paris Air Show on June 21, 2023 | Photo Credit: Reuters

As part of the process to conclude the deal for procurement of 31 MQ-9B armed High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), the Defence Ministry is expected to issue the Letter of Request (LoR) to the U.S. by the first week of July. This would initiate acquisition through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, discussions continue to increase the indigenous content and sourcing as part of the deal, according to Ministry officials. The deal is expected to take a few months to be concluded.

“The current indigenous content proposed in the MQ-9B deal is 8-9% while India is hoping it can be increased up to 15-20%. Discussions are on and General Atomics is positive to it and the U.S. government has to agree to it,” a senior Defence Ministry official said.

Some of the components will be manufactured here which can be scaled up and some of the electronics, sensors and avionics can also be manufactured here, the official said adding discussions are continuing on it. General Atomics is also in talks with several Indian companies as part of the deal, officials said.

The U.S.-India joint statement issued after the talks between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the MQ-9Bs, which will be assembled in India, will enhance the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of India’s armed forces across domains. “As part of this plan, General Atomics will also establish a comprehensive global Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility in India in support of India’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defence capabilities,” the statement said.

On June 15, days before Mr. Modi’s U.S. visit, the Defence Acquisition Council chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh accorded Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the 31 MQ-9Bs - 15 for the Navy and eight each for the Army and Air Force. As per the process, once the LoR is sent to the U.S. Department of Defence, a Letter of Acceptance (LoA) will be issued followed by commercial negotiations with the company. The U.S. administration will have to notify the U.S. Congress of the potential sale, which is expected to be a formality. In the penultimate step, the deal has to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security after which the contract can be concluded.

According to its manufacturer General Atomics, the MQ-9B can provide roughly 80% of the capability of a large human-flown maritime patrol aircraft at about 20% of its cost per hour. This is the primary reason the Indian Navy is particularly keen on these UAVs as they will significantly enhance its ISR capabilities to monitor the wide expanse of the Indo-Pacific.

Dr. Vivek Lall, Chief Executive of General Atomics Global Corporation said PM Modi and President Biden have significantly enhanced the defence relationship between the two countries by announcing the decision to acquire MQ-9B for the Indian armed forces. “This is a breakthrough moment for India-U.S. strategic and defence partnership and General Atomics is pleased to be a major contributor in taking it to the next level,” he said in a comment to The Hindu.

Indian Navy already operates two MQ-9As on lease from General Atomics since November 2020. In November 2022, the two UAVs completed 10,000 flight hours during a period of two years, and covered over 14 million square miles of operating area, according to General Atomics.

At Aero India in February this year, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and General Atomics announced an understanding to formulate a comprehensive engine MRO programme to support HALE UAVs in the Indian market.

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