US approves sale of 31 Predator drones to India

Following delay over alleged plot to kill Sikh separatists on US soil, $4 billion deal for MQ-9B Sky Guardians gets go-ahead

A MQ-9B Sea Guardian drone on display at the Umex exhibition in Abu Dhabi last year. AFP
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The US has approved a $4 billion sale of state-of-the-art Predator drones to India, after a delay following an alleged plot by Indian officials to assassinate a Sikh separatist on US soil.

This sale marks a milestone in Indian purchases of American weapons, as historically New Delhi has been more reliant on Russian arms.

Orders from Russia have been increasingly controversial due to sanctions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Indian officials discussed the deal during a state visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.

This came after Indian forces were involved in border skirmishes with China and New Delhi's historic adversary Pakistan.

After months of discussion with US legislators and India, the State Department formally informed Congress of the sale of 31 MQ-9B Sky Guardians – the most advanced among the Predator drones built by General Atomics.

“The proposed sale will improve India's capability to meet current and future threats by enabling unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation,” the State Department said on Thursday.

“India has demonstrated a commitment to modernising its military and will have no difficulty absorbing these articles and services into its armed forces.”

The drone deal was held up in Congress after US prosecutors alleged a plot to kill a Sikh separatist leader with US citizenship in New York.

The Justice Department alleged that an Indian government official directed the plan remotely.

India promised to look into the claim – a more measured response than New Delhi's furious reaction when Canada earlier alleged Indian involvement in the killing of a Sikh separatist near Vancouver.

But some members of Congress questioned whether both Mr Modi and the US administration were taking the allegations seriously enough, and put off their informal green-lighting of the sale.

Congress still has 30 days in which it can block the sale, although most observers expect it to go through.

“The notification gets the sale back on track, but it could still encounter some choppy seas in Congress. The assassination allegations against India continue to cast a shadow over US-India relations,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Centre think tank's South Asia Institute.

“Strategic imperatives tend to carry the day in this partnership, and that will likely ensure the sale eventually goes through, but one can't rule out the possibility of some hiccups during the finalisation process,” he said.

In New Delhi, Foreign Ministry spokesman Randhir Jaiswal said the US was following its “internal processes” on the sale, declining further comment.

The Sea Guardian can monitor the oceans as effectively as submarines, say officials. It can remain airborne for 35 hours and can carry Hellfire missiles and around 450kg of bombs.

The Indian Navy has already been operating two Predator drones on lease, with which it has monitored the Arabian Sea to protect ships from attacks by Houthi rebels from Yemen and Somali pirates.

In 2019, India broke precedent by crossing into Pakistani air space to strike an alleged militant training camp.

Tensions have also been rising on the Himalayan frontier between India and China, where 20 Indian troops and at least four Chinese soldiers died during a confrontation in 2020.

US policymakers have largely seen common cause with India due to shared worries about China, although some members of Congress have raised concerns about India's human rights record.

Updated: February 02, 2024, 8:32 AM