On Wednesday, the government disclosed India’s next major defence purchase from the United States – the procurement of Sea Guardian unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to patrol the waters off the Indian coastline. The contract for an estimated 22 Sea Guardian drones will be worth approximately $2 billion. Like most defence platforms that New Delhi has bought from Washington over the last decade, this deal is being pursued on a government-to-government basis, and with no manufacture in India. The defence minister told Parliament in writing today in response to a Member’s question: “Request for Information (RFI) for Predator ‘B’ Sea Guardian [drones] was issued to the US Office of Defence Cooperation on 14.11.2017 (November 14) and response is awaited”. “Procurement of Predator ‘B’ Sea Guardian is being progressed under Buy (Global) category [of the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2016] and no transfer of technology is envisaged,” stated the minister’s response. In June, a joint statement after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Donald Trump in Washington DC noted that the US has offered India the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems, to “enhance India’s capabilities and promote shared security interests.” The Sea Guardian will add to $5 billion worth of weaponry already in the pipeline from the US. That includes four Boeing P-8I Poseidon maritime aircraft for a billion dollars; one C-17 Globemaster III for $366 million; $3 billion worth of helicopters – including 22 AH-64E Apache attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy lifters – and a $700 million order for 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers. The Sea Guardian, built by US firm General Atomics, is the naval version of the legendary Predator B armed drone (also termed the MQ-9 Reaper), with which the US has killed terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen. India had asked for the armed version, but Washington has only offered the unarmed Sea Guardian, which performs maritime surveillance. Travelling at 300 kilometres per hour at 50,000 feet, the Sea Guardian flies 14-hour missions to monitor waters 1,800 km from base. It sends imagery in real time to a ground control room on base, which flies the drone through a two-way data link. Pointing out that India is the first non-NATO country to which Washington has agreed to export the Sea Guardian, US industry experts tell Business Standard India’s designation as a US “major defence partner” opened the doors for the sale. Being a “Category 1” system under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Sea Guardians are they are tightly controlled because of their presumed ability to also deliver nuclear weapons. MTCR member countries are required to adopt a “presumption of denial” for all requests for “Category 1” systems, except on pressing national security grounds.
So far, Washington has cleared sales of the Sea Guardian only to US allies that are engaged in active combat operations in alliance with US military forces. Operators include France, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.According to a The New York Times report in June, pro-Indian US congressmen facilitated the Sea Guardian clearance. After three Indian requests to the Pentagon, Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner wrote to Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to clear the sale, to “advance US national security interests and protect US jobs.” India’s own RPV development programme is relatively primitive. Updating parliament on Wednesday, the defence minister revealed: “The development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Rustom-II is an indigenous effort wherein majority of the sub-systems like airframe, landing gear, avionics systems, flight control systems and datalink systems have been developed indigenously through various private industries. Sub-systems like propulsion systems, sensor systems and payloads have been currently imported for which indigenous development has been undertaken through sister DRDO labs [Defence R&D Organisation laboratories]”.