United States President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial vehicles (UAV), according to a joint statement issued on June 22 after talks between the two leaders. This sets the stage for the acquisition of 31 armed UAVs — 15 for the Indian Navy and eight each for the Indian Army and Air Force. The process for their procurement through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme of the U.S. has commenced, with the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) having approved the deal last week.
A fact sheet issued by the U.S. said, “India intends to procure armed MQ-9B Sea Guardian UAVs. This advanced technology will increase India’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.”
Giving further details on the nature of purchase, the joint statement said, “The MQ-9Bs, which will be assembled in India, will enhance the 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 to support India’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defence capabilities.”
Now as per process, following the DAC approval, the Ministry of Defence will issue a Letter of Request to the U.S. Department of Defence, which would in turn issue a Letter of Acceptance. This would be followed by the contract negotiations, which includes the cost of the deal, and once details are worked out, the U.S. Administration will have to notify the U.S. Congress of the sale, which is a formality in this case. In the penultimate step, the deal will have to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security, after which the contract can be finalised.
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. That makes it much more economical for navies to, say, send out Sea Guardians to clear big volumes of air or sea and then, if anything of interest is discovered, vector in a human-crewed aircraft to save it the time, cost, and wear that it otherwise might have expended, the company stated.
This is the primary reason the Indian Navy is keen on these UAVs as it significantly reduces the wear and tear on manned aircraft as well as crew fatigue for its fleet of 12 P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft which keep an eye over large swathes of the Indian Ocean Region.
Featuring unmatched operational flexibility, the MQ-9A ‘Reaper’ has an endurance of over 27 hours, speeds of 240 KTAS (knots true airspeed) and can operate up to 50,000 feet, according to General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.
The MQ-9B has two variants — the Sky Guardian and the Sea Guardian, its maritime variant. MQ-9B is designed to fly over the horizon via satellite for up to 40 hours, depending on configuration, in all types of weather, and safely integrate into civil airspace. For instance, the Sea Guardian configuration can include a 360º surface-search maritime radar, automatic identification system, sonobuoy monitoring system, and sonobuoy dispensers for persistent anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare missions.
The MQ-9B also seamlessly integrates with other U.S.-origin platforms that India operates — the P-8Is, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, MH-60R multi-role helicopters, among others, expanding MQ-9B’s multi-domain mission set.
Already in service
The Indian Navy leased two MQ-9As from General Atomics in 2020. In November 2022, General Atomics announced that the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) completed 10,000 flight hours during a period of two years, with the maiden flight taking place on November 21, 2020, and MQ-9As have “helped the Indian Navy to cover over 14 million square miles of operating area.”
As the deal has been under discussion for few years. In the run-up to the announcement at Aero India in Bengaluru in February, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and General Atomics announced that the turbo-propeller engines which power the MQ-9B will be supported by HAL’s engine division for the Indian market. “The companies are looking to formulate a comprehensive engine MRO programme for upcoming HALE Remotely Piloted Aircraft projects,” a joint statement had said.
Major upgrade from original Predator
The MQ-9 is a significant technological leap from the original RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator that heralded the arrival of long endurance armed drones at the end of the twentieth century. Armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, it became a symbol of the U.S. war on terror after the 9/11 attacks, with their extensive employment in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan in the early 2000s. The RQ-1 Predator, which was first flown by the USAF in 1995, was retired in 2018 and replaced by the MQ-9 Reaper.
According to the U.S. Air Force (USAF), the Reaper is employed primarily as an intelligence-collection asset and secondarily against dynamic execution targets. “Given its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite, and precision weapons, it provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination, and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.”