On President Joe Biden's invitation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to visit the United States on June 22. One of the primary agendas of the meeting should be to expedite the process of acquiring armed drones from the US, specifically the MQ-9 Reaper. Meanwhile, according to reports, the Indian Navy also wants to extend the lease of the two Sea Guardian drones, a variant of the Reaper, which the navy acquired from the US in 2020.

The Sea Guardians are based at the INS Rajali naval air base, which is in close proximity to Arakkonam, where the navy's P-8I Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft operates. Both platforms are highly capable of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, and being US systems, they have shown great compatibility. The Indian Navy currently does not possess an armed variant of the MQ-9. The Sea Guardian variant was leased from the US defence firm General Atomics during the peak of the Galwan Crisis. Vice Admiral MS Pawar, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff at the time of the lease, mentioned that the Navy was able to complete the leasing process in 37 days.

In the past couple of years, the Indian Navy has extensively utilised the drones' ISR capabilities in the Indian Ocean region. By complementing other surveillance assets, the Navy has been able to track the presence of foreign warships and naval vessels in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Arabian Sea. China, in particular, has been actively asserting its influence in the IOR for the past decade, deploying warships, submarines, and research vessels.

Last year, the Yuan Wang-5, equipped with reconnaissance sensors and electronic equipment, came close to India's NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) area. The NOTAM was issued for the user trials of Agni V, India's only Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Prior to this incident, another research vessel, Yuan Wang-6, was observed in the IOR region ahead of the Agni 3 missile test.

The drones have immense potential for deployment. For instance, during the Galwan crisis when India and China engaged along the Line of Actual Control, the P-8I aircraft were deployed to monitor Chinese troop movements. The same aircraft was also deployed during the Doklam standoff. The MQ-9 Reaper can serve similar roles. In fact, recently, MQ-9s were spotted in activity near Myanmar's controversial Coco Islands. According to reports, the island is undergoing strategic upgrades, including doubling the length of the airstrip to 2,300 meters.

Although there is no confirmed Chinese presence on the Coco Islands, China has made investments in Myanmar. The Kyaukphyu project is often seen as China's backdoor entry into the Indian Ocean region. In recent years, China, with its "String of Pearls" strategy, has attempted to encircle India and push the nation towards geopolitical isolation. According to the United States' China's Military Power Report 2022, China's support base in Djibouti can now accommodate large naval vessels. China already has control over multiple ports in the region, from Sri Lanka's Hambantota to Pakistan's Gwadar, and others.

Currently, India lacks anti-mine warfare vessels and has cancelled plans for acquiring more P-8I aircraft. Under these circumstances, it is crucial for the Indian Navy to extend the lease of the two MQ-9 drones it is currently operating. The drones, under a Company-Owned Company-Operated (COCO) lease agreement, are operated by General Atomics on behalf of the Indian Navy. Last year, sources indicated that India was in advanced negotiations with the United States to purchase 30 MQ-9B armed drones for over $3 billion.

With Pakistan's acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Akinci drones and China's established prowess in the drone manufacturing sector, the acquisition of armed drones should be the foremost priority of the Indian armed forces to counter the growing threat. The lease of the two current MQ-9 drones is set to end in 2024.