India plans to buy 30 armed drones from the US to boost its sea and land defences as tensions persist with neighbours China and Pakistan, officials said with knowledge of the matter.
The government, sources said, will approve next month a $ 3 billion worth purchase of 30 MQ-9B Predator drones manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics. The deal would add to India’s military capabilities as the drones it has now can only be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.
India is emerging as a strategic defence partner for the US, particularly in countering Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean and some areas of south-east Asia. The Narendra Modi government is in the midst of a 10-year long $ 250 billion worth of military modernisation programme.
Spokespeople from the Ministry of Defence and General Atomics did not respond to requests for comment. Pentagon officials did not respond to a request for comment either.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to visit India this month while President Joe Biden will soon join the executive heads of India, Japan and Australia in the first-ever meeting of the “Quad” bloc. The leaders will meet virtually on 12 March, an announcement posted on the Indian government’s website, which said they would discuss issues including supply chains, maritime security and climate change.
The MQ-9B drone can fly for about 48 hours and carry a payload of about 1,700 kg (3,700 pounds). It will give the Indian Navy the ability to better monitor Chinese warships in the southern Indian Ocean, and equip the army to engage targets along the disputed India-Pakistan border in the Himalayas.
Last year, India had leased from the US two unarmed MQ-9 Predators as border tensions with China threatened to snowball into a full-blown conflict. They were eventually not deployed after the Indian Air Force expressed apprehension about drones manned by US personnel flying over the border.