US President Donald Trump formally gave his blessings to the sale of 22 Predator Guardian unmanned aircraft for the Indian Navy earlier today. The approval came on the second day of prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington. The proposed sale , along with another for one Boeing C-17 Globemaster cargo plane, gave the two sides a positive story they could announce given tepid growth in bilateral trade worsened by Trump’s mercantilist convictions.
The proposed sale of the unmanned aircraft still needs to be approved by the US Congress before price negotiations begin. If they’re concluded in reasonable time and the navy’s budget priorities don’t change, the deal could be worth anywhere between $2-3 billion. Separately, the Globemaster carries a price tag of $366 million.
Clearing the way for a deal
India has been eyeing US-made unmanned aircraft for several years now. But the US had rebuffed it, pointing out that India was neither a member of the Missile Technology Control regime (MTCR) cartel nor a so-called major defense partner (MDP) of America.
India overcame both those hurdles in June 2016. That month, it received the MDP status and then joined the MTCR. Membership in the MTCR came at a terrible price though- in May, Indian authorities allowed Italian marine Salvatore Girone return to his home country. Girone was one of a pair of marines (the other, Massimiliano Latorre was sent back to Italy in 2014) who shot and killed two Indian fishermen of the coast of Kerala in 2012. Italy had previously been blocking Indian membership in the missile cartel and demanding the release of its trigger-happy soldiers.
The Predator Guardian and India’s UAV fleet
India’s armed forces have been slowly building their fleet of unmanned or remotely piloted vehicles. Besides an assortment of locally produced prototypes and target drones, all UAVs presently in service with the Indian Air Force, Army and Navy are Israeli, the bulk of them include more than a hundred Searchers and 68 Heron-1s.
The US-made Predator Guardians that India is considering are meant for the Navy, but while they’re billed as maritime variant by the manufacturer General Atomics, it’s important to note that Guardians cannot take off from or land on Aircraft Carriers or other surface ships. Also, these UAVs are strictly for reconnaissance- they cannot carry weapon payloads. On the positive side, Guardians take full advantage of the weight savings that come from not having to accommodate a crew: It can reach an altitude of 50,000 feet and its maximum flying time is 27 hours.
In short, if the Indian Navy does acquire these aircraft, they’ll be deployed off the coasts of the mainland and the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, looking for Chinese or Pakistani submarines or surface vessels. That’s not quite the game-changing system that some have hyped it to be, but it is a step towards building a far more formidable fleet of flying killer robots.