As India and the U.S. look to announce defence deals worth around $3 billion during President Donald Trump’s visit beginning on Monday, the proposal to procure armed drones from the U.S. for the three services is very much under way and the qualitative requirements (QR) are currently being finalised, defence sources said.
“The proposal for 10 High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones for each Service is on. The qualitative requirements (QR) are currently being finalised,” a defence source told The Hindu . “The pricing and availability (P&A) data has been obtained from the U.S. and joint QRs are being formulated, while the payloads will be different for each service,” the source added.
The Navy’s QRs are ready and that of the Army and the Air Force should be ready by the next meeting of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), likely within 40 days, the source said.
The CoSC consists of the three chiefs and is headed by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), who is also the permanent Chairman of CoSC.
This week during Mr. Trump’s visit to New Delhi, the two sides are expected to announce deals for 24 MH-60R Multi-Role Helicopters for the Navy and six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for the Army worth around $3 billion. The two deals got the final approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) last week. There are several other big ticket deals in the pipeline, which includes the armed drones, air defence system to protect Delhi, MK-45 127mm naval guns and six more P-8I long patrol maritime patrol aircraft.
The issue of procuring armed drones from the U.S.— the MQ-9 Reaper or Predator-B built by General Atomics — has been long under discussion, with questions being raised over its necessity given the steep cost and also the operational requirement in the Indian context. With a vast ocean space to monitor and increasing profile in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Navy has been the one pushing for High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones to beef up surveillance.
“There is a drive towards fleet rationalisation,” a Navy source said, adding that they are at a point where in place of manned platforms they should look at unmanned ones. “As we look at unmanned platforms, the number of minesweepers has been reduced from 12 to eight and requirement for additional P-8Is has been reduced from 10 to six, the Navy source explained.
The HALE drones can conduct surveillance, while the P-8Is will be for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) role, the source stated, adding that the Navy is looking for Seaguardian drones armed with missile and radars for maritime reconnaissance.
“If the process goes as per plan, then we expect to issue the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) by first half of this year,” another source said. The U.S. has in principle approved the sale of these armed drones to India following which the P&A data was made available.
For the Navy, the Seaguardian can fly in sync with its P-8Is, which are also from the U.S. With India signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement(COMCASA) in 2018, U.S. origin platforms will also get encrypted systems which will further improve their capabilities. The unmanned platforms reduce the number of personnel, their turnaround and associated costs, officials said.
While the Navy has a different requirement, there have been questions on the need of armed drones for the Army and the IAF due to which the deal has been delayed for a long time. Each drone with its load of weapons and sensors is expected to cost around $200 million. “It is more expensive than a fighter aircraft,” a defence source said.
According to General Atomics, Seaguardian, the maritime variant of Predator-B, can fly at an altitude of over 40,000 feet and has a maximum endurance of 35 hours. It can carry an external payload of 2.1 tonnes across nine hard points.