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he General Atomics MQ-9B armed drones will add more teeth to India’s maritime security and drone awareness security, the United States said.

On 1 February, the US approved the sale of 31 MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and related equipment to India at an estimated cost of $3.99 billion (Rs 33,060 crore).

India gets ‘outright ownership’ of MQ-9B drones

“This sale, we believe, will provide India with an enhanced maritime security and maritime domain awareness capability,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters at his daily news conference.

“It offers India outright ownership of these aircraft, and this is something that we’ll continue to deepen our cooperation with our Indian partners on,” Patel said.

This acquisition will bolster India’s capability to meet current and future threats by enabling unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation.

The projected mega drone deal was revealed during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic state visit to the US in June 2023.

Why is India procuring 31 MQ-9B armed drones from the US?

The long-endurance drones are being procured by India to enhance the surveillance capabilities of its armed forces, especially along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

As per the deal, India will get 31 High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs. Of these, the Indian Navy will get 15 SeaGuardian drones, while the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force will get eight each of the land version – SkyGuardian.

The officials of the US and the Indian government have been holding a series of negotiations on the proposed procurement after Washington responded to New Delhi’s Letter of Request for the acquisition of the drones from US defence major General Atomics.

The proposed procurement also figured in US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s talks with Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Delhi in November.

The Defence Acquisition Council, or DAC, headed by Rajnath Singh on 15 June 2023, accorded the Acceptance of Necessity or initial approval for the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B drones from the US under the foreign military sale route.

The High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones are capable of remaining airborne for over 35 hours and can carry four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kgs of bombs.

In 2020, the Indian Navy had taken on lease two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from General Atomics for one year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The lease period has been extended subsequently.

MQ-9B drones: Features & Specifications

Manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the MQ-9B drones, are the first hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for long-endurance and high-altitude surveillance.

The drones are 11 metres long and have a wingspan of over 22 metres. They boast of an endurance of over 27 hours and can operate up to 50,000 feet.

The drone has a 240 Knots True Airspeed (KTAS) and a 1,746 kg payload capacity, including 1,361 kg of external stores.

It comes equipped with multiple mission payloads including Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR), Lynx multi-mode Radar, multi-mode maritime surveillance radar, Electronic Support Measures (ESM), laser designators, and various weapons and payload packages.

The UAV is remotely operated by a two-member crew – a pilot and an aircrew member – who operate the sensors and weapons.

According to the US Air Force, the Reaper is capable of employing “eight laser-guided missiles, air-to-ground missile-114 Hellfire, which possess highly accurate, low-collateral damage, anti-armour and anti-personnel engagement capabilities.”

The predecessor of Reaper, the Predator, came to be known for its use during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where it caused a high number of civilian casualties in “precision strikes”, notes The Guardian. The RQ-1/MQ-1Predator was retired by the USAF in 2017, with Reaper becoming the forces’ primary unmanned aircraft.

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