Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Is The Indian Navy One Step Closer To Getting Its MQ-9B Drones?

By Aritra Banerjee

New Delhi is now at an “advanced stage” with Washington for the procurement of 30 MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). The US$ 3 Billion government-to-government purchase is likely to bolster India’s surveillance capabilities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which could be a gamechanger for New Delhi. General Atomics, the RPA’s maker, offers the MQ-9B in two variants: the SkyGuardian, and its sibling SeaGuardian.

The company’s MQ-9A, commonly known as the ‘Reaper’, made headlines last month in the targeted assassination of key Al-Qaeda figure Ayman-al-Zawahiri. The drone strike reportedly saw a Reaper drone fire a Hellfire R9X missile. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led operation gave security and industry observers an operational demonstration of the MQ-9’s accuracy and deployment in counter-terrorism operations.

Dr Vivek Lall, the Chief Executive for the General Atomics Global Corporation, told the media that the acquisition programme is at the advanced stages of discussions between the two governments. He further told the press that “any questions on those discussions should be addressed specifically to the respective governments. From a company perspective, General Atomics is ready to support India and values our longtime relationship.”

Indian Navy’s MQ-9Bs On Course!

The Indian Navy (IN) has beefed up its surveillance mechanism to monitor increasing Chinese activities. The People’s Liberation Army -Navy (PLAN) warships have been making frequent forays in the IOR. The IN leased two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from General Atomics in 2020 for a year in response to these developments. The duration of this lease was extended. MQ-9 B’s have since flown nearly 3,000 hours in support of the IN’s maritime and land border patrol objectives.

Dr Lall had previously spoken extensively to IA&D on the General Atomics MQ-9B offering for the IN. He told the publication that “the complete MQ-9B system exceeds the operational requirements, provides an unmatched return on investment for the Indian people and can lead to fruitful cooperation with the Indian Unmanned Aircraft Industry. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) partners with our customers for the life of the aircraft. We look forward to supporting India’s long-term goal of preeminence in the future of unmanned aircraft.”

Dr Lall had further explained that the company’s remotely piloted aircraft provides multi-domain operations in support of land, maritime surveillance, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), Anti-Surface Warfare (ASUW), Strike, Electronic Warfare (EW) roles, and expeditionary roles. “In addition, the ability of the MQ-9B to network with other air, sea, land and space systems creates an exceptional opportunity to expand employment options. Our aircraft are ready to operate virtually anywhere India’s forces need it, performing many different missions, and integrating with other UAS and other units however the authorities wish to use them,” he had noted.

MQ-9Bs can fly over 40 consecutive hours; the exact endurance depends on the drone’s configuration at the deployment time. The UAV has been described as having state-of-the-art Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and is touted to give the end-user sophisticated maritime intelligence.

Indispensable For Navies

Dr Lall had highlighted how the MQ-9 B’s SeaGuardian variant could prove invaluable for naval and maritime use. The drone can provide wide-area surveillance over significant sections of the ocean surface and highly detailed, pinpoint intelligence about individual areas of interest or specific vessels. This could give the Navy the much-needed edge it needs in the ever-evolving dynamics in the IOR.

Serving a broad range of maritime surveillance operations across domains, the MQ-9B’s can aid in coastal security and law enforcement by monitoring drug smuggling, illegal immigration, piracy, and maritime terrorism. An unfortunate instance of the latter was the 26/11 terror attack, which saw the use of a fishing trawler as the terrorist’s infiltration method. The incident served as a glaring indictment of coastal surveillance.

General Atomics MQ-9B SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian variants deliver adverse-weather capability – with lightning protection, a damage-tolerant airframe, and a de-icing system – and are built for compliance with STANAG-4671 (NATO airworthiness standard for UAS).

“MQ-9B is a tool that provides perpetual intelligence that will enhance India’s security,” Dr Lall highlighted before opining that “the MQ-9B is simply the finest and most advanced aircraft of its kind anywhere in the world – it’s the flagship of some of the most advanced air forces in the world. When a government selects MQ-9B, it is getting the best.”

India is not the only country in the “advanced stages” of negotiation to procure the MQ-9B drones. “The United Kingdom Ministry of Defence selected MQ-9B SkyGuardian for its MQ-9B Protector program, and last year concluded the production contract for deliveries to the Royal Air Force (RAF). In addition, the Belgian Ministry of Defence signed a contract for SkyGuardian. We’re in advanced discussions with many other countries,” Dr. Lall revealed.

Apart from its maritime utilities, the MQ-9B has been designed from the ground up to operate in civil airspace, which enables it to perform missions such as border patrol, search and rescue, fire detection and firefighting support, and maritime patrol, and resource monitoring missions.

The drone is provisioned with a Detect and Avoid System (DAAS), designed to increase the safety of operations in civil and military airspace. The MQ-9Bs have been known for their operational flexibility and can be utilised in roles ranging from disaster recovery to monitoring wildlife.

The procurement proposal has been moved by the Indian Navy and all three services are likely to get 10 drones each.


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