As per defense reports, The Indian Navy, Indian Army, and IAF have finally decided to jointly procure 30 armed versions of the American unmanned aerial system in what could be a $3 billion defense deal.
The decision comes just before US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to India later this month. Austin’s visit could be a precursor to the impending meet of the ‘Quad’ leaders — US, India, Australia, and Japan — which is planned to be held soon.
In June 2017, the US State Department approved the sale of 22 MQ-9 Reaper drones to India, costing around $2-3 billion. In November 2020, the Indian Navy began operating two leased MQ-9B SeaGuardians.
The lease agreement was valid for one year. The drones were deployed at the Naval Air Station Rajali located in Tamil Nadu.
According to various defense experts, this decision has come amid growing threats from Pakistan and China. Initially one of the three services was not on board about procuring the armed predator drones but now all three are finally on the same page.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh-led Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) could take a final decision on this before the end of this year. The procurement of MQ-9 Reaper drones will certainly provide the Indian Military a major boost in its unmanned warfare capabilities.
If approved, this would be the first tri-service procurement since Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat was appointed to steer the Indian armed forces into a more united force, both in terms of operational doctrine and procurement.
According to the deal, India will be acquiring 30 MQ-9 Reaper or Predator B, 10 each for the three services. The MQ-9B has an endurance of 48 hours and a range of over 6,000 nautical miles. It comes with nine hard-points, capable of carrying sensors and laser-guided bombs besides air-to-ground missiles, with a maximum payload of two tonnes.
The Navy, which is the lead agency for procurement of HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) UAVs, will seek the Acceptance of Necessity (AON) from the DAC. According to sources, the Navy is really impressed with the two UAVs it took on lease from the US firm General Atomics.
The Navy is also pursuing another contract for 10 Naval Shipborne Unmanned Aerial System, for which American firm Boeing is the front runner. It is also looking at leasing minesweeper vessels and helicopters, as reported in December last year.
As for other contracts, Rémi Maillard, president of Airbus India and the company’s managing director for South Asia, had said that they are in talks with the Navy to lease out Panther helicopters for its warships, as the force looks at bridging the capability gap it faces when it comes to the rotary-wing.
Well, the acquisition of these drones is vital for India as these drones are operated through digitized networks that connect ground command post, satellite, and the drone while performing the operations, therefore providing high accuracy while hitting the targets.
However, the problem with digitized network-centric warfare is that these networks are vulnerable to disruption, hacking, and electronic attacks, which can seriously hinder the performance of these drones and perhaps even render them useless.
So in order to maintain a strategic and operational edge over Pakistan and China, India must invest heavily in its electronic and cyber warfare capabilities as China is already leading the world in its Cyber and Electromagnetic spectrum capabilities.
China's PLASSF (People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force) already operates a large number of armed drones that are similar to the MQ-9 Reaper in their capabilities. PLASSF is also known for its Cyber and Electronic Warfare capabilities that can pose a huge threat to India.
Indian Military has to keep in mind that while the induction of new high-tech equipment is necessary for its military modernization program, but it's more important to secure the networks through which these platforms are operated.