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The assembly of American MQ9B combat drones in India
Admiral R. Hari Kumar, Chief of Naval Staff, explains to Vishal Thapar in an exclusive interview how the tri-service acquisition of the most cutting-edge drones in the world was used to transfer specialised technologies to the DRDO.
The American MQ9B Sea/Sky Guardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft, the world’s most advanced High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) combat and reconnaissance drone, will be assembled locally in India (RPA). These are improved versions of the venerable Predator.
“Through assertive negotiations, instant acquisition proposal has been leveraged for assembly of at least 60 % of the quantity of aircraft proposed for procurement in India,” Chief of Naval Staff Admiral R Hari Kumar said in an interview.
For the purchase of 30 MQ9B from the US via the Government-to-Government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route, a Tri-services case is currently being developed.
Initially estimated at $3 Billion, the deal will also involve “collaboration with DRDO for transfer of certain niche technology required for indigenous D&D of HALE RPAS in India,” Admiral Hari Kumar disclosed to Businessworld.
“Setting up of a Performance Based Depot Level Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO), Sea Guardian Global Sustainment Support (SGSS)” would be part of the programme, the Chief of the Indian Navy stated.
“These enabling agreements along with the procurement case would make India a Drone Hub as envisioned by Hon’ble PM,” Admiral Hari Kumar added.
He had earlier stated that the three services were debating “whether the (procurement) figures need to be rationalised.”
When it is fully developed, the MQ9B contract will be one of the key markers of military cooperation between India and the US. It will also be the first time the recognisable combat and surveillance drone has been assembled outside of the US.
“The MQ-9B is designed to fly over the horizon via SATCOM for up to 40 hours in all types of weather and safely integrate into civil airspace, enabling joint forces and civil authorities to deliver real-time situational awareness anywhere in the world—day or night,” it is stated by General Atomics, the manufacturer, which terms these as “the next generation of RPAS, delivering persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) around the globe”. It can fly at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet.
The combat capability, over-the-horizon targeting, anti-surface, anti-submarine, defensive counter-air, airborne early warning, and electronic warfare features give it the edge even if ISR is its main focus.
The MQ9B features nine hardpoints with a maximum external payload capacity of 2155 kg. “This enables armed forces and governments to easily integrate sovereign payloads and mission systems for their own uniquely tailored solutions,” General Atomics states.
Recently, Admiral Hari Kumar stated that the Indian Navy had found the experience of leasing two MQ9As from the US to be of “excellent value,” and he expressed confidence that these RPAs would “bring enormous value to all three services.”
These rented drones just finished 10,000 hours of flight time supporting Indian security missions. In two years, this was accomplished.
“To put this into perspective, 11 P8I Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance aircraft of the Indian Navy were able to fly 29,000 flight hours in 9 years while 2 MQ9A logged 10,000 flight hours in just 2 years. This is the true measure of a long endurance UAV: Persistent surveillance. Imagine what a fleet of about 10 MQ9Bs could do in exercising constant vigilance,” an observer pointed out. The original proposal envisaged an equal three-way split of the 30 HALE RPAs to be procured amongst the services.