India’s defence ministry on Thursday approved the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B armed drones from the US, with a formal announcement on the deal expected during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington next week, people familiar with the matter said.

The clearance for procuring the drones made by General Atomics was given by a meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) chaired by defence minister Rajnath Singh, the people said.

As reported by IDN in September 2021, the three Services had finally came around to agreeing to go in for the drone deal, which is a tri-service acquisition but is being led by the Navy.

India is expected to buy the drones, which have an endurance of more than 27 hours and can operate at up to 50,000 feet, in a deal worth a little more than $3 billion, the people said. Fifteen drones will be for the navy, and eight each for the army and the air force, they said.

The deal is expected to be announced when Modi meets US President Joe Biden at the White House on June 22, the people said. This is only the third state visit hosted by Biden and the two sides are looking to the talks between the two leaders to lead to breakthroughs in collaboration in other areas, such as critical and emerging technologies.

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There was no official word on the issue from the defence ministry or the armed forces.

India and the US have engaged in talks on the acquisition of the drones for almost eight years, primarily to bolster the Indian armed forces’ surveillance capabilities. The Indian Navy currently operates two MQ-9 drones leased from the US in November 2020.

The acquisition of the drones gained urgency after the military standoff with China in the Ladakh sector of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) began in May 2020, increasing the Indian military’s need to enhance its vigil along the disputed border.

The defence ministry’s “acceptance of necessity” is the first step in the formal procurement process, which will need to be cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) chaired by the Prime Minister. The two sides will also need to conclude negotiations on the final pricing of the drones.

The US government approved the sale of the drones to India more than two years ago. Talks between the two sides on the deal proceeded in fits and starts, and were reportedly affected by New Delhi’s focus on the “Make in India” initiative for developing and manufacturing defence hardware.

The drone deal and an agreement to manufacture the GE-F414 engine, developed by GE Aviation, in India to power the country’s home-grown combat aircraft are understood to have figured in US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s two-day visit to New Delhi this week.

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US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, too, visited India last week and unveiled a joint road map for defence industry cooperation.

The US has sold helicopters, heavy-lift transport aircraft and maritime surveillance aircraft to India in recent years and has been nudging the country to acquire more American-made hardware to reduce its dependence on weaponry from Russia, which continues to be largest supplier of military gear.

The hunter-killer MQ-9 drones are capable of a variety of roles, including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, over-the-horizon targeting, airborne early warning, electronic warfare. The SkyGuardian variant has a wingspan of 79 feet and can carry a payload of 2,155kg on nine hardpoints.

The SeaGuardian variant can fly over the horizon via satellite for more than 30 hours and has advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

The Reaper has been acquired by the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force and the Spanish Air Force.

Sources – Indiandefensenews