With the India-US two plus two dialogue scheduled in December, all eyes are on the Indian Navy to move the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) for possible announcement of the $3 billion procurement of armed Predator drones from Washington to strengthen India’s beyond the horizon capabilities.
According to officials based in New Delhi and Washington, defence minister Rajnath Singh and external affairs minister S Jaishankar will meet their US counterparts, secretary of state Antony Blinken and defense secretary Lloyd Austin, in December in Washington with both sides on verge of finalisation of dates.
While the stabilisation of drought facing Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific in light of Chinese aggressive postures will be top of the agenda, there is a possibility of the two sides announcing the Predator deal provided the due government processes are completed. It is understood that the Indian Navy is ready to move the DAC for Acceptance of Necessity (AON) for acquisition of 30 MQ 9A Predator drones from General Atomics with each of the three services getting 10 Hell-Fire missile firing drones. As the Indian Navy is already operating two leased Predator drones for maritime domain awareness beyond the Straits of Malacca to Gulf of Aden, the acquisition process is being handled by them for both the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army. Despite initial reservations of the Indian Air Force, all services are on board on Predator acquisition.
“The process is on. It involves the concurrence of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) after DAC clearance. The announcement can be done provided the process is complete before the two plus two dialogue or else it will be announced later,” said a top South Block official with the Indian Navy confirming that the US had clarified to their satisfaction about the project.
Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had met the CEO of General Atomics, which is the leading US manufacturer of armed drones, during his visit to Washington on September 23.
In the context of the US getting permission to use Pakistani air space for maintaining beyond the horizon capabilities to target terrorists in Afghanistan, India also needs to strengthen its drone capabilities as the indigenous development of armed drones has miles to go.
“Pakistan denial on allowing the US the use of its air space for beyond the horizon operations in Afghanistan must be taken with a pinch of salt, just as its denial of the presence of al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the past. One of the key reasons why the US did not want India to respond to Islamabad after the Parliament and Kaluchak terror attacks was due to the presence of US special forces in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks. This was conveyed by then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to India in 2002,” said a Pakistan watcher.
The Indian requirement for Predator armed drones has grown with China not only acquiring the capability but selling the Wing Loong armed drone to Pakistan, which can launch up to 12 air to surface missiles. Islamabad close ally Turkey has also acquired the armed drone capability with Bayraktar series of drones being used in Libya and Syria theatres and by Azerbaijan against Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.