India may prune by half a potential order to import hi-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from the United States due to financial constraints, two government officials familiar with the Navy’s modernisation plans said on Sunday.
Instead of pursuing the navy’s original requirement of 22 MQ-9B SeaGuardian UAVs to boost its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, India now plans to buy only 10 such systems under the US government’s foreign military sales (FMS) programme, one of the officials cited above said on condition of anonymity.
The 22 UAVs, made by General Atomics, were estimated to cost $2 billion. India began the FMS process in 2016 by issuing a Letter of Request (LOR) to the US.
“Responding to the LOR, the US has supplied us with the price and availability (P&A) data for the SeaGuardian systems. The navy has studied it and rationalised its requirement from 22 to 10 UAVs because of the cost and the requirement of the other services,” said the second official, asking not to be named.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is also keen to buy Predator Avenger UAVs from the US.
The downsizing of the order will mean that the navy will have to prioritise the areas it wants to keep under surveillance using the SeaGuardian UAVs, said a senior navy officer on condition of anonymity.
“We had arrived at a figure of 22 on the basis of our requirements. But we have to manage with the resources we have. The navy has several aerial surveillance platforms such P-8I aircraft, IL-38s, Dornier planes and other UAVs,” he said.
A government-to-government deal does away with the need to float a tender. Such transactions may be complicated in their conception and execution but are more transparent to financial scrutiny.
“If financial constraints are there, then there’s no choice but to order fewer UAVs,” said military affairs expert Rear Admiral (retd) Sudarshan Shrikhande. The MQ-9B SeaGuardian systems will provide unmatched intelligence and surveillance capabilities to the navy, he said.
The navy currently operates a mix of Israeli-built Heron and Searcher UAVs for intelligence-gathering and surveillance. It has a vast area of responsibility in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) spanning millions of square kilometres, with warships being deployed to as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca and northern Bay of Bengal to the southeast coast of Africa.
With their range and endurance, SeaGuardian UAVs will provide India advanced capabilities for ocean surveillance, especially at a time when Chinese naval presence in the region has gone up. India’s exclusive economic zone alone measures 2.4 million square kilometres, which is also the navy’s responsibility.
Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had highlighted the significance of the Indian Ocean earlier this month, calling it the navy’s only front. “As we surge ahead in the 21st century, the attention of the entire world is focused on the Indian Ocean Region, where our navy is increasingly seen as a ‘net security provider’…Our security strategy is aimed at providing a maritime environment that is free from all forms of traditional and non-traditional threats to our national development,” Lanba had said.
The P-8I planes, the mainstay of the navy’s long-range maritime surveillance fleet, have also been imported from the US. India currently operates eight Boeing P-8I planes and four more will join the fleet by 2021.
General Atomics has also designed the electromagnetic aircraft launch and recovery system (EMALS), which is likely to be fitted on India’s second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-II).
The navy is getting more American equipment. India issued an LOR to the US government in November for 24 MH-60R Seahawk multirole helicopters under the FMS programme.
Since 2008, India has bought or ordered military equipment worth $15 billion from the US. This includes C-130J special operations planes, C-17 transport aircraft and P-8I submarine hunter planes.