An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flies by at Creech Air Force Base

Mike Pompeo and Mark Esper pushed armed MQ-9 Reaper drones during a high-profile summit in India this week as Trump enters the waning days of his re-election bid

The U.S. pressured India to purchase sophisticated armed drones during a high-level meeting between top officials this week but was not successful, officials confirm to U.S. News, robbing President Donald Trump of a sought-after foreign policy "win" in the waning days of his re-election bid.

The State Department has already cleared the way for India to purchase MQ-9 Reaper drones, which have become prolific in American-led counterterrorism wars and which U.S. officials believe would perform a critical role in better preparing India's army for the kind of deadly border clashes with China that have escalated in recent months.

Multiple current officials speaking on the condition of anonymity confirm that the sale was at the top of the agenda for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper going into their trip to India earlier this week to meet with their local counterparts, the latest in a series of high-profile summits known as the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue.

However, India, at least for now, refused.

The sale, like many weapons deals the president has previously touted, would have served as a sterling example of the domestic and foreign policy doctrine Trump has espoused. It would enable another country to carry out a White House foreign policy goal, in this case the foundational promise Trump has stressed in recent weeks of deterring and containing China. And following the Air Force's announcement earlier this year it plans to transition away from relying on the MQ-9 as it prepares for its own potential confrontations with Russia and China, a new deal with an economic powerhouse like India would secure American jobs at the General Atomics assembly plant for the Reaper in California.

It would also serve as a symbolic step toward incorporating more American hardware into India's arsenal and move away from the Russian and Soviet equipment that currently comprises much of it – a key goal of the Pentagon's as it continues to court a greater alliance with the South Asian powerhouse.

"For a customer like India, we get a strategic bang for our buck and at the same time we get the economic benefits," says Karl Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron who frequently advises various elements of the U.S. government on drone policy and other security matters. "This is a good story in that we're keeping American jobs, we're sticking it to China."

Pushing for an MQ-9 sale to India also meets a set of requirements that have become a new reality for the national security elements of the government during this administration: It achieves a goal set by the Pentagon, is easy to sell the president and does not conflict with Trump's vision of the world or his style of leadership.

"For the Trump administration, this issue is much more a political one rather than a strategic one," Kaltenthaler says. "And this is one of those cases where Trump's incentives or motivations for doing this don't conflict with the Pentagon."

It was not immediately clear why the Indian government declined the U.S. offer at this time, and its Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.

However, multiple sources familiar with the discussions and speaking on the condition of anonymity cited the expense of these drones – which as of last year cost roughly $16 million each. They also say New Delhi plans to hold out for a larger and more comprehensive arms package at some point in the future, but certainly not before Election Day next week.

The State Department declined to answer questions on-record about why it was so eager for India to agree to the sale, or criticism that the timing of the U.S. pressure amounted to an attempt to grant Trump a foreign policy "win" in the lead-up to next week's election.

A spokesperson speaking on the condition of anonymity says the U.S has "strived to meet India's defence requirements in recent years," and noted that "defence trade has increased significantly over the past two decades."

"As of 2020 the United States has authorized more than $20 billion in defence sales to India," the spokesperson says, adding that the country maintains the largest fleets of C-17 and P-8 aircraft outside of the United States.

At the summit this week, the four senior officials signed a much-anticipated Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, a significant achievement that formalizes future military and intelligence cooperation between the two powers.

And Esper indicated in public remarks that the prospect of drone sales in the future, as well as other military equipment, remains a likelihood.

"Our defence trade and technology cooperation continues to grow, as reflected in India's acquisition of Apache and Seahawk helicopters earlier this year," the defence secretary said at a press conference with the other officials. "We look forward to advancing sales for other key defence platforms, including fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial systems."

Trump has made arms sales a central component of his foreign policy and routinely boasts about how he perceives their benefit. Early in his administration, Trump sped up the approval process for arms sales abroad by reducing oversight, prompting widespread concern. In April 2019, Trump withdrew from an international weapons pact that had previously bolstered efforts to limit the spread of arms globally, saying it undermined American sovereignty.

In May, the president said that "over a million" American jobs were created by billions of dollars worth of new arms sales to Saudi Arabia that wrought scrutiny amid Riyadh's troubling human rights record. Defence News reported at the time the number of new jobs was likely between 20,000 and 40,000.