By Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)
New Delhi. The US-India ties peaked during the Trump Administration in security and capability building. Many of the pending LOAs (Letters of Acceptance) were hurriedly approved by the US, the driving factor apparently being a very aggressive China which literally wants to push the US out of the South China Sea and dominate the region.
China is bullying nearly all its neighbours in the region, has created artificial islands for offensive operations, and is moving rapidly to change the existing Westphalia-principled world order of Precedence of Peace. This is unacceptable not only to the sole superpower, but also nearly everyone else, with the specific exceptions of North Korea and Pakistan, which has also bartered away its strategic port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea to China, perhaps for ever in exchange for money.
The US has realized that time has come to collaborate with like-minded democracies in its existing area of influence, the Indo-Pacific, for challenging China alone could stretch it beyond acceptable levels.
India, Japan and Australia, geographically fit the bill. It is necessary for the US to quickly build the capability of their three Navies. While Japan is perhaps nearly there, India and Australia are moving towards filling the gaps.
India had learnt the hard way post 26/11 Mumbai terror attack the importance of maritime surveillance and overall security. We have come a long way in the last 13 years since then. But there is now a bigger challenge in the Indo-Pacific and specifically the Indian Ocean Region. It is a vast expanse of the sea and calls for near unbroken 24×7 surveillance. It is this reality that has led to the US to ease export of high technology systems and platforms.
The Predator MQ 9B long endurance armed UAS is one such addition now for the Indian and Australian Navies, besides of course that of the US Navy which already operates it all over.
US has leased two Predators to the Indian Navy meanwhile for Indian Ocean surveillance. The two have performed outstandingly in the tropical weather conditions, and stunning pictures of Chinese deployment have been observed in unthinkably deep parts of the Indian Ocean.
Being interoperable with some advanced systems of Indian Navy like the Boeing P 8I Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft and the Indian Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) network, the arrival of even these two MQ 9B aircraft has been a welcome development. Built by General Atomics, the high technology crown jewel privately-owned company of the US, the two high endurance Predators have expanded the Indian Navy’s horizon and prowess. This UAS has formidable high definition sensors and cameras.
Notably, although initially IAF and Indian Navy wanted this system, the Indian Army now wants an equal share, and the Government is expected shortly to clear 10 MQ 9Bs each for the three Services. President Trump had cleared the armed variant of MQ 9B in 2017 at India’s request during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington in 2017, and procedural processes have been completed by the three Services for their submissions to the Ministry of Defence.
The Predator drones have become legendary for their ability to fly more than 40 hours nonstop for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions as well as for attacking select targets with precision with Air to Surface missiles. A UAS, flown by a pilot with joysticks in California for instance, can loiter for hours, say over multiple targets in Afghanistan, and neutralise them one by one. Operational footage has been shown to the Indian forces by US Department of Defense and GA representatives.
Pending clearance – or Acceptance of Necessity (AON) – by the Ministry of Defence, the three Services have worked out various locations where these machines would be deployed for operations and maintenance.
GA has been developing the technology and capability of its UAS over the years. The MQ 9B has a big firepower boost with Hellfire missiles and an external one tonne load of bombs .
The control is through a secure data link with ground control, and the Indian Navy is using the opportunity of its two leased Predators to train its personnel also.
Given the variance in tasks of the three Services, Predators being purchased by India could be slightly different for required surveillance and attack modes. MoD is expected to issue the AON, the procedural first step to go-ahead, any time.
Given the geopolitical situation in the IOR and the speed at which QUAD/ Malabar exercises are institutionalising, the procurement of naval Sea Guardian deserves priority. The MQ-9B version of the Navy has max T/O weight of 5.6 tonnes and should perform maritime surveillance, strike and anti-submarine tasks. The UAS will have a powerful radar and will carry sonobuoys for detection of submarines.
It is not just the Indian Navy that is concerned over the turbulence created by the Chinese forces in the South China Sea and the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the other three QUAD members are equally disturbed and all are coordinating to share data and required operational roles. France, which holds sizable territories in the Indian Ocean, and Germany and Britain, and other countries in the South China Sea, are coming forward to support strengthening of QUAD.
Assets like the MQ 9B will play a crucial and formidable role in helping build and maintain security and stability in the two Oceans and lands being eyed by China.
Meanwhile, the armed forces of India, Australia, and maybe sometime Japan, are waiting for their Date With The Predators to ensure Precedence to Peace and well being of the people of the Indo-Pacific regions. The US Navy and Air Force could initially lease some of their machines to them to begin meaningful cooperation and coordination.
(The author is a former Commander in Chief of the Western Naval Command of the Indian Navy).
This article was published by India Strategic in May 2021.