In a bid to substantially enhance India’s so-called stand-off weapon capabilities, the Trump administration in the United States has agreed to supply long endurance high-altitude surveillance armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are capable of hunting and destroying targets across seas and over land borders.
Indian and US diplomatic officials confirmed to Hindustan Times that the Pentagon’s decision to supply Predator-B drones to Indian military has been conveyed through official channels and that it is now up to the Narendra Modi government to take the final call based on the overall cost of India’s drone programme. The matter was taken up during official level meetings attended by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale and defence secretary in Washington last month, they added.
Manufactured by General Atomics, Predator-B has both land and naval versions and can be armed with air-to-land missiles, anti-ship missiles and laser guided bombs.
Stand-off capabilities refer to the ability to strike without fear of the defensive capabilities of the target.
Although the Pentagon had cleared the sale of 22 Guardian naval surveillance drones to India, New Delhi was insistent that given the costs involved, it was in favour of acquiring an armed drone which operates over both land and sea. “Purchase of the Guardian drone through government to government route did not make sense as even if the unarmed drone identifies a hostile target over Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea, it will have to request for Boeing P- 8I Neptune (aircraft) to destroy the target. The time lag and effort is not worth the while. The Indian need is an armed drone which not only locates but hunts down the target,” said a senior Indian government official who asked not to be identified.
The other Indian worry is about encryption keys to weaponised drone. Essentially, Indian national security planners are worried whether the US will also have control of the armed drones and could theoretically jam them . e US defence manufacturers have dismissed this concern by saying that India will have all the encryption keys for the armed drone.
This question, and the issue of the sale of the drones will come up before the technical team of Office of Secretary of Defence (OSD) policy arrives in the Capital on May 3-4, 2018 to discuss the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with Defence Ministry officials. India needs to sign COMCASA and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for operating highly advanced US defence platforms requiring secured communication and spatial equipment.
The Indian and US officials said the sale of armed drones could also come up during the two-plus-two dialogue between external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman with newly-appointed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis in Washington later this month.
While Indian national security planners are pleased over the US nod to armed drones, the cost, logistics and maintenance of the UAVs is prohibitive due to separate command and control centres and requirement of round the clock combat vigil.