Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will embark on a three-day bilateral visit to US in December first week with the acquisition of weaponized Predator drones and anti-missile shield for Delhi on top of the agenda with Pentagon as the two countries take their defence cooperation to the next level.
Sitharaman will be the first NDA defence minister to visit Hawaii to honor the renaming of Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific command, recognising the salience of India in east and far east.
According to diplomats based in New Delhi and Washington, Defence Minister Sitharaman will be in the US from December 3 to December 6 and will be hosted by Secretary of Defense James Mattis even as the possibility of US President Donald Trump reshuffling his Cabinet remains a distinct possibility.
Apart from her meetings in Washington, Minister Sitharaman will also visit the Mountain View headquarters of Pentagon’s defence innovation unit (DIUx), which recently tied up with its Indian counterpart. The innovation unit scours the West Coast of the US for the best technologies developed by the private sector which have military use in the future.
Government officials said on condition of anonymity that Sitharaman will discuss the acquisition of MQ-9 Reaper or Predator B drones from the US after the Pentagon gave a green signal to the weaponized platform being sold to India.
The Predator-B is a game changer as it performs multi-mission intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and hunter-killer missions over land and sea from a height of 50,000 feet. While the US first agreed to give 22 unarmed Guardian drones to India, the Modi government made it known that it would rather have a drone that not only locates but also targets the enemy.
It is understood that the Indian military is now working on its requirements for Predator-B deones. With an endurance of over 27 hours and speed of 240 knots, the drone can either be deployed by C-130 J Hercules aircraft or self-propelled. The Predator carries Hellfire missile, laser guided bombs and precision guided ammunition.
India has already initiated the process of acquiring $ 1 billion worth National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System -II or a missile shield for New Delhi as well as 24 multi-role Sikorsky helicopters worth $1.8 billion through the government to government route.
During her visit, Sitharaman will also re-pitch for a Presidential waiver on CAATSA for the Indian acquisition of S-400 missile system from Russia; there were some positive signals on this during her meeting with Secretary Mattis on October 19 on the sidelines of the ADMM plus meeting in Singapore.
The two defence ministers are expected to review bilateral defence cooperation and discuss regional environment particularly in context of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the Indo-Pacific. Apart from a military exchange, the two countries are gearing up for a first of a kind tri-service amphibious exercise early next year.