A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper armed with bombs and air-to-ground missiles

The Indian Navy had first announced a requirement for 22 Guardian drones in 2016

A US defence publication on Wednesday reported that the Pentagon and India's ministry of defence are working to “tailor” the Predator B armed unmanned aerial vehicle for export to New Delhi for all three services.

Breaking Defence, which covers the US military and defence industry, reported that officials are “actively discussing how to finalise the long planned sale”. Indian and US officials have been talking about the sale of drones to India for several years, though an order is yet to be announced. While earlier announcements centred around sales of drones for surveillance, since 2018, the US has indicated its willingness to sell India armed UAVs.

Ben Schwartz of the Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-India Business Council told Breaking Defense that the modifications for the India-specific drones would revolve around “weapon systems, the avionics suite, the communications suite—they all need to be tailored to India’s needs, so it works with their other equipment.” Schwartz also mentioned the need to ensure the integration of the drones with other Indian equipment, most of which are not of US origin.

Breaking Defence also spoke to Ellen Lord, head of acquisition at the Pentagon, who noted negotiations with India were continuing. She referred to the visit of defence ministry official Ajay Kumar, who was recently appointed defence secretary.

The Indian Navy had first announced a requirement for 22 Guardian drones in 2016 at an estimated cost of $2 billion. The Guardian is a variant of the Predator family of drones, which is optimised for maritime surveillance. The Guardian can stay airborne for approximately 35 hours. The Predator family of drones is manufactured by General Atomics, a US company.

The Predator B (designated MQ-9 Reaper by the US Air Force) is heavier, faster and more advanced than the first generation of Predator drones that were used in the US invasion of Afghanistan. The Predator B can carry up to 1.7 tonnes of external stores including sensors, antitank missiles and guided bombs weighing up to 230 kg each. The heavier payload gives its greater flexibility in striking a diverse number of targets on the ground.

An eventual deal with the US for the Predator B drones would be a first for the Indian military, which has so far used UAVs of Israeli origin. India has also held negotiations with Israel for purchasing the Heron TP, which can carry weaponry. The Heron TP is a larger variant of the Heron drone, in service with the Indian Navy.