India needs the high-altitude, max-endurance armed MQ-9B Predators, aka Reapers — recently used to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri — to crank up its surveillance apparatus along the frontier with China as well as in the Indian Ocean region

The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with the Hellfire missiles fired through the MQ-9 Predators (also called Reapers) once again made this US flying machine the cynosure of military attention. With reports emerging of India being in an advanced stage of negotiations to procure 30 MQ-9B Predators, let's find out what these Predator drones are all about.

History of MQ-9B Predator Drones

Predator drones were conceived in the early 1990s for aerial reconnaissance and forward observation roles after the failure of GNAT 750 in operations over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and 1994. GNAT 750 suffered from several technical issues and RQ-1 Predator came as its more capable and enhanced version replacement for medium-altitude tactical reconnaissance.

By 1995, it too was operating over Bosnia and Herzegovina and later saw combat in the US war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, the 2011 Libyan civil war, and the 2014 intervention in Syria.

By 1999, the US Airforce (USAF) felt the need for more advanced versions, so General Atomics began work on the Predator B, which entered operations in 2007 as the MQ-9 Reaper, as the replacement of the original Predator.

It is operated by the CIA and the USAF, which describes Predator as a "Tier II" MALE UAS (medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system).

Technical Specifications

The MQ-9B has two variants — SkyGuardian and its sibling SeaGuardian. The Indian Navy has been operating the MQ-9B Sea Guardian since 2020.

According to the General Atomics, MQ-9B Sea Guardian can carry up to 12,500 lb (5,670 kg) and has fuel capacity of 6,000 lb (2,721 kg).

The drone can operate at over 40,000 feet, giving the Indian military surveillance capacity in the high-altitude Himalayan border areas. The Predator also has the maximum endurance of 40 hours, making it useful for long-hour surveillance.

Moreover, MQ-9B Sea Guardian can support land, maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, strike, electronic warfare and expeditionary roles.

The MQ-9B Sea Guardian is also capable of automatic take-offs and landings.

The MQ-9 and other UAVs are referred to as remotely piloted vehicles/aircraft (RPV/RPA) by the USAF. The aircraft is monitored and controlled by aircrew in the Ground Control Station (GCS) and is popularly called in the US as the first hunter-killer UAV.

Why Does India Need Predators?

India needs the armed drones — at a cost of over $3 billion — to crank up its surveillance apparatus along the frontier with China as well as in the Indian Ocean region.

Since 2020, India and China had been at military standoffs at several points along the 3,488 km-long border, with several reports claiming that both sides have deployed close to two lakh troops each. India has stepped up surveillance considerably along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), using a fleet of unmanned drones and the addition of these drones would be a big upgrade in India’s monitoring program.

Further, with China increasing its naval activity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), including docking its latest-generation space-tracking ship — Yuan Wang 5 capable of monitoring satellites, rockets and intercontinental ballistic missile launches close to the Indian coastline — the need for Reaper drones seem imperative to control China.

Also, several reports highlighted the fact that the Indian Navy is satisfied with the performance of the Predators. The navy inducted two MQ-9B Sea Guardians in 2020. The drones were taken on lease from General Atomics for a year, which was later extended thanks to its performance.

Some Important Operations By Predator/Reaper Drones

The MQ-9 Reaper was reportedly used in the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport in January 2020. Soleimani was the top commander of Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and headed its elite Quds Force. He was in charge of operations in the Middle East.

The killing heightened the US-Iran tensions to a new level, with Iran firing several missiles on US bases in Iraq in the response. However, no damage or casualties were reported on the US side.