Armed drone deal with U.S. firm likely to be announced during PM’s visit

Over $3 billion to be paid for 31 UAVs, with 15 for the Navy and eight each for the Army and Air Force; deal approved by Defence Acquisition Council, awaits final nod from Cabinet Committee on Security

June 15, 2023 03:24 pm | Updated 09:33 pm IST - NEW DELHI

An MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Photo:

An MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Photo:

Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S., the Defence Acquisition Council on Thursday approved the procurement of 31 armed MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from General Atomics, defence sources confirmed. The deal is now awaiting final approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security and is expected to be announced during next week’s visit.

The long-pending proposal to buy the high altitude long endurance armed UAVs was on the agenda of the Council, which is chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, when it met on Thursday morning, two sources said. They also confirmed that the Council approved the deal, which will be executed through the Foreign Military Sales route of the U.S. government.

Of the 31 UAVs to be procured, 15 are meant for the Indian Navy, with eight each for the Army and Air Force. Th total cost, estimated to be more than $3 billion, also includes maintenance, overhaul and repair of the platforms, Indian officials said.

Navy’s pressing need

Earlier, the plan was to buy 30 UAVs, with 10 for each service. However, the Navy has the most pressing requirement for these platforms, which will significantly enhance its maritime surveillance capability over the Indian Ocean Region while reducing the stress on the P-8I maritime patrol aircraft.

In December, Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar had said that the deal was in progress and at a stage “where we are discussing if numbers need to be rationalised or kept as it is.”

The Indian Navy had leased two MQ-9As in 2020, and have since extended that lease. In November 2022, General Atomics announced that these leased UAVs had completed 10,000 flight hours during a period of two years since their maiden flight on November 21, 2020, and have helped the Indian Navy to cover over 14 million square miles of operating area.

Collaboration with HAL

At Aero India in Bengaluru in February 2023, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and General Atomics announced that the turbo-propeller engines which power the MQ-9 would be supported by HAL’s engine division for the Indian market. The companies are looking to formulate a comprehensive engine maintenance, repair and overhaul programme for upcoming high altitude long endurance UAV projects, they said in a joint statement.

The Sea Guardian, which is the maritime variant of the Reaper MQ-9 UAV, has a maximum endurance of 40 hours and a maximum flying altitude of 40,000 feet. It is equipped with a 360-degree maritime surveillance radar and an optional multi-mode maritime surface search radar as well.

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