India is pursuing a $3bn deal to buy 30 Predator drones from the US and PM Modi has in US met the Indian-origin CEO of the company that makes the aircraft

They’ve been used in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and engaged in dogfight with Iraqi jets when they have not been roaming the skies with their ‘eyes’ pointed on the goings on below. Military drones have fast emerged as a smart and effective modern warfare solution for enhancing surveillance and strike capabilities without putting personnel at risk. No wonder then that it was one of the top items on PM Narendra Modi’s agenda on his visit to the US with India looking to acquire a fleet of Predator drones for all its three services.

What Are The Details of The Deal India Is Pursuing?

Reports in March this year had said that India is looking to buy as many as 30 drones, or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), as they are called in military jargon, from the US to bolster its reconnaissance and unmanned aerial warfare capabilities. The Predator MQ-9B system that India is eyeing is made by the San Diego-based General Atomics, which is led by Indian-origin CEO Vivek Lall.

The deal was said to be worth USD 3 billion for the drones that will come armed with an advanced systems and weapons package and enable long-range surveillance and precision strikes. It was reported that India was seeking more clarity on the deal, including regarding the maintenance of the aircraft and transfer of technology. In his meeting with PM Modi, General Atomics CEO Lall is reported to have said that India is an attractive destination for the manufacturing of drones.

“There are a lot of potential areas of collaboration that we’re in discussions with, I think US companies and many of my colleagues in US companies see India as a very promising destination," Lall said.

India’s drone shopping list includes the SeaGuardian/SkyGuardian variants of the MQ-9B with reports saying that the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force will each get 10 aircraft apiece with customised specifications. The India Navy is already using two unarmed SeaGuardian drones that it leased last year from the US, which are being used for surveillance in the Indian Ocean Region.

What Is The Predator MQ-9B?

They may seem like a very recent presence on the military horizon, but the Predator drone has been around for more than two decades. The first Predator drone was trialled in the early 90s and had entered production by 1997. Experts say that the development of these drones was first taken up as a system that would provide “persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information combined with a kill capability".

The Predator system — there have been several versions and updates — gained operational status much before the launch of the full-blown war on terror in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks, finding deployment in Bosnia in 1995 in support of NATO, UN, and US operations. Initially, their role was mainly as reconnaissance systems but, by 2005, they had been repurposed to also strike at targets and were used in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The first Predator systems had an RQ designation, where ‘R’ denotes ‘reconnaissance’, ‘Q’ stands for ‘remotely piloted aircraft system’. The switch to ‘MQ’ designation — ‘M’ stands for ‘multi-role’ — occurred in 2002, reports say, after the addition of Hellfire missiles to the aircraft.

How Does This System Work?

A list of the capabilities the Predator brings to the war room shows why it has come to be a prized possession for any military. These drones can undertake intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance tasks, provide close air support and carry out combat search and rescue, precision strikes. They can be used to monitor the movement of convoys and also help guide pinpoint strikes against designated targets.

While these aircraft fly without any personnel onboard, they have been light-heartedly referred to as being “more ‘manned’ than many other combat aircraft" as the “basic crew for the Predator is a rated pilot to control the aircraft and command the mission… an enlisted aircrew member to operate sensors and weapons as well as a mission coordinator, when required". This crew flies the aircraft from a ground control station using a data or satellite link.

Specifications shared by General Atomics say that the drone has a flying time of 40 hours and can touch altitudes of more than 40,000 ft. It has a length of 38ft and its wingspan reaches 79ft. As for armaments, it can carry “up to four Hellfire II anti-armour missiles and two laser-guided bombs" apart from other ordnance.

While the US military had also “adapted a Predator to carry Stinger missiles and attempted an air-to-air engagement with an Iraqi MiG-25 — a dogfight that resulted in the loss of the Predator", experts note that the drone is “well-matched to the nature of the global war on terror", operating “for the most part… against terrorists and insurgents who lack aircraft and air defences".

How Many Countries Have Military Drones?

Given the versatility they provide and the lower costs and risks involved in their operation, drones are now regarded as being an important part of modern military arsenals and are seen as having “unequivocally changed the character of warfare in strategy, action, and perception".

According to reports, more than 10 countries are so far known to have used drones to carry out strikes, including the US, Israel, UK, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Russia, with many more countries said to possess armed drones. The US and Israel are considered to be the biggest producers and sellers of drones. But the US has reportedly only sold to NATO members and, if the deal with India goes through, it would mark the first sale of drones to a non-NATO country.

India is reported to be among the top buyers of drones but the country also has its own drone development program and in November 2016, had successfully tested the Rustom-II armed medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone.

China is also regarded as a key exporter of drones although the country has yet to use them to carry out any strikes.

How Will The Predator Drone Help India?

The utility that drones provide against terror actors would make them especially attractive to India, which can use these aircraft to keep a watch over the difficult terrain that terror groups are known to occupy. The drones can also be useful in Left-Wing Extremism (LWE)-affected areas.

The two drones that the Indian Navy has been using since last year has enhanced its monitoring capabilities. “The long endurance of the MQ-9 SeaGuardian drones allows us to keep a watch on a large area and has helped us to enhance our maritime domain awareness. This also allows us to keep a close eye on any vessel of interest operating in the region," Navy Vice Chief Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar has said.