India-US arms deal: “Painstaking discussions” cleared way for USD 4 billion sale of 31 military drones

Bilateral relations between India and the United States entered February 2024 with a triumph, as the US State Department approved the sale of 31 MQ-9B armed drones to India at an estimated cost of USD 3.99 billion.

India has closed a deal with the United States for the MQ-9B military drone. Photo courtesy: General Atomics website

This American-made military drone acquisition is expected to bolster India’s capability to meet current and future threats. The drones enable unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation.

“I would say that our partnership with India is one of our most consequential relationships. We work closely with India on our most vital priorities,” said State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller at his daily news conference in Washington DC, after the drone deal was struck on Thursday.

In addition, US Senator Ben Cardin, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he removed his objections to the drone deal with India following months of “painstaking discussions” with the Biden Administration.

The senator said that he got assurance from the administration that India would work with the United States on investigating an alleged plot to assassinate a Khalistani separatist on American soil.

Following this assurance, Senator Cardin ended his objections to the deal, and the US State Department notified Congress that the government had agreed to sell 31 armed drones to India.

15 SeaGuardian and 16 SkyGuardian drones

Under the USD 4 billion deal, India will get 31 High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs aka drones).

The Indian Navy will get 15 SeaGuardian drones, while the Army and the Indian Air Force will get 8 each of the land version, named SkyGuardian.

At his briefing on the deal, in response to a question on the next steps, spokesperson Miller said, “I cannot give you a timeline. This was the initial step today, notifying Congress. The exact timeline of the delivery is something that we will explore with the Government of India over the coming months.”

On the importance of the deal, he stated, “I will say with respect to the deal itself, the USD 3.99 — almost 4 — billion sale of 31 MQ-9B SkyGuardian aircraft will provide India with an enhanced maritime security and maritime domain awareness capability.”

This drone sale offered India outright ownership and a 16-fold increase in the number of aircraft, as compared to its current lease of two MQ-9A aircraft, added the US State Department representative.

The manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical said on its website: “MQ-9B SkyGuardian® is the next generation of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), delivering persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) around the globe. SkyGuardian is designed to fly over the horizon via satellite for up to 40+ hours in all types of weather and safely integrate into civil airspace, enabling joint forces and civil authorities to deliver real-time situational awareness anywhere in the world — day or night.”

General Atomics said that “SkyGuardian can be configured to conduct a number of ISR operations”, including but not limited to:

  • Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief
  • Search and Rescue
  • Law Enforcement
  • Border Enforcement
  • Defensive Counter Air
  • Airborne Early Warning
  • Electronic Warfare
  • Anti-Surface Warfare (SeaGuardian mission kit)
  • Anti-Submarine Warfare (SeaGuardian mission kit)
  • Airborne Mine Counter Measures (SeaGuardian mission kit)
  • Long-Range Strategic ISR
  • Over-the-Horizon Targeting

Blinken-Jaishankar close working relationship

In response to another question, Miller said that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a close working relationship with his Indian counterpart, Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, where they were able to engage on some of the most urgent and important priorities.

Blinken and Jaishankar
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Indian Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar in Washington DC in September 2023. Photo courtesy: X/@MeghUpdates

“Obviously, the secretary has travelled to India to meet with the foreign minister on a number of occasions. He has welcomed him here. He has met with him in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly,” said Miller.

Pannun ‘plot’ roadblock demolished

The drone deal had earlier faced the roadblock of the alleged ‘plot’ to kill Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Senator Cardin, a Democrat, had insisted on New Delhi’s co-operation with Washington’s investigation into the alleged Indian link to the foiled plot, before the deal could be approved.

US federal prosecutors, in an indictment unsealed in November 2023, charged Indian national Nikhil Gupta with working with an Indian government employee in the foiled plot to kill Pannun, who holds dual US and Canadian citizenships, on American soil.

“As the chairman of this [Senate Foreign Relations] committee, I fully intend to hold the [Biden] Administration to these commitments,” said Cardin. “My approval of this sale was the result of months of painstaking discussions with the Biden Administration.”

Referring to India-US bilateral relationships, the senator said that this partnership played a key role in the Indo-Pacific stability, including through regional mechanisms such as the Quad (short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States).

“I support deepening our bilateral relationship with India as long as that partnership is based on mutual trust and respect. Championing human rights and democratic values globally is one of my top priorities,” said Cardin.