Will Modi’s State Visit to the US Bring News on Deal for Predator Drones?

While negotiations over the Predator had proceeded since 2016, the purchase had still not received Acceptance of Necessity clearance by the Ministry of Defence. Another stumbling block could be the Indian Navy's insistence to incorporate 60% indigenous content into the weapon system under the atmanirbharta initiative.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US next month has fuelled speculation in security circles concerning the possible announcement of materiel buys and enhanced defence cooperation between Washington and New Delhi during his June 22 visit.

The most obvious, and possibly the only outright US buy on the anvil for India were 18 weaponised General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc (GA-ASI) Sea Guardian/Predator high altitude long endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for an estimated $1.5-2 billion.

Pared down from an earlier requirement of 30 UAVs – priced at around $3-4 billion – these 18 armed drones would eventually be acquired via the US Foreign Military Sales route, and divided equally between India’s three services, to meet their respective operational needs, an official source said. If confirmed, India would be the first non-NATO state to receive armed UAVs for possible deployment along its restive northern and western borders and in the strategic Indian Ocean Region.

In recent years, Indian military planners have stressed the need for Predator UAVs to counter China’s and Pakistan’s Wing Loong II medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAVs, powered by turbocharged engines. The Chinese-designed UAV, provided to Pakistan, has an operational envelope of 20 hours and is capable of attaining speeds of 370 kmph.

In contrast, two non-weaponised Sea Guardian maritime variants with an endurance of over 30 hours in all types of weather, had been leased by the Indian Navy (IN) in 2020 – initially for a year, but later extended by another three years, to 2024 – to supplement the force’s surveillance operations over the Indian Ocean Region, executed by its Boeing P-8I Neptune long-range maritime multi-mission fleet. The two UAVs – based like the P-8Is off the east coast at INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu – were also the first lot of military equipment to be leased by India under revised provisions incorporated into the Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020 (DAP-2020).

Industry sources, meanwhile, said senior Pentagon and State Department US officials had ‘jumped through multiple hoops’ to approve the Predator sale to close strategic ally India, as they considered its transfer to be an ‘article of faith’ to further cement bilateral defence ties. “The Pentagon remains sanguine over some kind of announcement to advance the Predator contract during Modi’s visit,” said a senior industry official in Delhi. It’s the only major US materiel acquisition in the pipeline, and if progressed would go a long way in boosting collaborative military confidence on both sides, he added, declining to be identified.

But for India, peculiar hurdles in furthering the Predator deal endure.

The IN, which is the lead service in negotiating the UAV contract, had recently declared that even though it was ‘actively pursuing’ their buy, it wanted manufacturers GA-ASI to incorporate 60% indigenous content into the weapon system under the MoD’s atmanirbharta initiative, aimed at indigenising India’s materiel needs by reducing imports.

We are still pursuing the ‘Acquire Predator drones project’, declared former IN Vice Chief of Staff Vice Admiral S.N. Ghormade in February, “but we are seeing how it can be indigenised and whatever facilities can be built (for it) in India.” He went on to state that procurement agencies were working with indigenous firms and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to ensure that 60% of the UAV’s contents were sourced locally.

Military analysts and a cross-section of senior service officers expressed disbelief and amazement over the intent to ‘indigenise’ the Predator, possibly one of the world’s most advanced hunter-killer UAVs, as such superior levels of technological expertise were simply not available locally. One senior IN officer said that ever since the MoD had first issued its letter of request (LoR) to the US in June 2016 for the Predators, the UAVs were conceived of exclusively as an ‘outright purchase’, with no hint whatsoever of incorporating any local content into it.

Such an eventuality would doubtlessly encompass domestically-sourced components and sub-systems integration onto the UAVs, which GA-ASI had reportedly not considered in talks with the IN and other Indian officials over the past seven years. “The question of incorporating indigenous content into the UAVs arises only if they were made in India,” said a former MoD official. It does not apply to off-the-shelf materiel, he declared, refusing to be named and added that such a condition would doubtlessly ‘bamboozle and flummox’ US suppliers.

The MoD had initiated the Predator procurement days after India’s induction into the 35-nation Missile Technology Control Regime that entitled Delhi to formally receive such weaponry. Furthermore, India signing the long-pending Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement with the US in October 2020 to facilitate the bilateral exchange of geospatial data, satellite imagery and sensor data, too had smoothed Delhi’s way towards first leasing the two UAVs for the navy and later acquiring the armed version.

Nonetheless, while negotiations over the Predator had proceeded apace since 2016, official sources said its purchase had still not received Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) clearance by the MoD’s Defence Acquisition Council. The AoN is one of the initial steps in India’s byzantine DAP-2020 before the concerned acquisition is progressed over the succeeding 11-12 time-consuming steps.

A file photo of Narendra Modi and Joe Biden. Photo: The White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More announcements

In the meantime, media reports indicated that the joint production and manufacture of combat aircraft engines, infantry combat vehicles, howitzers and precision ordnance for them, all of which were discussed recently in Washington at the 17th meeting of the US-India Defence Policy Group (DPG), too could be announced during Modi’s US visit.

The government’s Press Information Bureau declared that both sides reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral defence ties at the May 17 DPG meeting, co-chaired by defence secretary Giridhar Aramane and US Under Secretary of Defence Colin Kahl, and deliberated on ways to develop this (somewhat moribund) co-operation further. They also decided to launch INDUS-X, ahead of Modi’s arrival, under the aegis of the initiative on Critical Emerging Technologies (iCET) agreed upon by the two sides in February, to foster partnerships between their respective defence innovation ecosystems.

The iCET, for its part, was merely a ‘warmed up’ Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) launched by the US and India in Delhi in 2012 after four years of negotiations, but one which had failed miserably in even remotely achieving its goal of furthering defence co-operation between the two newly emergent strategic allies, shorn of bureaucratic hiccups from either side. The Initiative was aimed at ‘altering’ the ‘transactional nature’ of the defence relationship into a ‘collaborative venture’ as the US had sold India $20 billion worth of military equipment since 2002.

Primarily, the DTTI encompassed four ‘pathfinder’ projects like the joint development of Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Systems and Integrated Protection Ensemble Increment 2 clothing for protection against chemical and biological exposure with the DRDO. Two additional DTTI programmes – AeroVironment RQ 11 Raven hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles and roll-on/roll-off intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) modules for the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s 12 Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 transport aircraft – had elicited a lukewarm response from local vendors and were quietly withdrawn.

Thereafter, in June 2015 India and the US extended their 10-year bilateral Defence Framework Agreement to mid-2025 to further strategic and military ties, but also to provide the framework for progressing the DTTI and its supposed ‘transformative’ potential. And, a year later in mid-2016 DTTI added the Digital Helmet Mounted Display and the Joint Biological Tactical Detection System projects to its list, but the two prospective endeavours progressed little beyond the discussion stage. Several proposals under DTTI accomplished little or nothing, before lapsing into oblivion.

The iCET, for its part, comprised six broad areas of cooperation on the ashes of the DDTI, involving co-development and co-production in critical emerging technologies in defence, space and next-generation telecommunications – including 6G networks. Artificial intelligence and semiconductor know-how, in addition to other vital sundry areas of engineering, science and biotechnology too were included.

Perhaps some of these enterprises would be announced during Modi’s visit, but all eyes will, doubtlessly, be on the more tangible Predator deal – in keeping with the US dictum of “Ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”, better known by its ANSTAL acronym.