The Indian armed forces will be getting 22 American-made Guardian drones after the US cleared their sale ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington for his maiden meeting with US President Donald Trump. The clearance comes just days after the announcement of the possibility of making American F-16 fighter jets in India under the Modi government’s Make in India programme.
As reported earlier by news agency PTI, the news regarding the surveillance drones came from government sources on Thursday. The deal, which is estimated to be worth $2-3 billion, is being termed as a “game-changer” for bilateral ties between the two nations.
Modi’s two-day visit to Washington begins on Sunday. Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and has also had face-time with the leaders of nations including Japan, Britain, and Vietnam since taking office in January, prompting anxiety in New Delhi that India is no longer a priority in Washington.
According to informed sources, the decision was communicated to the Indian government and the manufacturer by the State Department on Thursday.
However, why do these drones matter? After all, they are unarmed. According to reports, the Indian armed forces intend to use them to keep a watch over activities in the Indian Ocean, a region which has seen the increased presence of Chinese naval assets.
Keeping an eye on China
Once the Indian Navy gets the unarmed surveillance drones it wants to keep watch over the Indian Ocean with, it would be the first such purchase by a country that is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance.
“We are trying to move it to the top of the agenda as a deliverable, this is something that can happen before all the other items,” said one official tracking the progress of the drone discussions in the run-up to the visit.
A big buyer of US arms, India was recently named by Washington as a major defence ally. India, for its part, wants to protect its 7,500-Km (4,700 mile) coastline as Beijing expands its maritime trade routes and Chinese submarines increasingly lurk in regional waters.
While the Guardian drones that India will get are unarmed, the Indian military had originally asked for missile-firing Predator Avenger aircraft, a request turned down by the Obama administration.
However, the drones are not the only highlight of the visit.
India and the United States will also discuss the sale of US fighter jets during Modi’s trip, in what could be the biggest deal since they began deepening defence ties more than a decade ago.
As reported earlier, US defence giant Lockheed Martin and India’s Tata group signed an agreement on Monday to jointly build the F-16 Block 70 fighter in India, should New Delhi opt for the American aircraft in the procurement of single-engine fighters for its air force.
Coming ahead of Modi’s visit to the US this Sunday, Lockheed Martin’s inking of this joint-venture (JV) – which would have required formal clearance from Washington – indicates that despite Trump’s promise to keep skilled jobs in the US, his administration is willing to transfer the ageing F-16 production line from Texas to India.
As Ajai Shukla, writing for the Business Standard, explains, manufacturing F-16 jets in India would be an ambitious project. This would first require the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to select the Tata group as an Indian “strategic partner” for aircraft production. Next, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the MoD would have to choose the F-16 Block 70 as the air force’s single-engine fighter aircraft. That multi-billion dollar procurement has already kicked off with the issue of a global request for information by the IAF.
Lockheed Martin, Lockheed, F-16 fighter jets, F-16 Two F-16 fighter jets arrive at the Krzesiny airport in western Poland, near the city of Poznan November 9, 2006 (File Photo: Reuters). The variant on offer to India is more advanced than the jets seen in the image.
MoD and IAF sources confirm aviation market intelligence that the IAF’s chosen fighter is likely to be either the F-16 Block 70 or the Gripen E fighter that Swedish company, Saab, has offered to India.
Interestingly, the F-16, albeit a less advanced version than the Block 70 variant on offer to India, is also the mainstay of the Pakistani Air Force.
The Tata group has earmarked Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to build the F-16 in India with technology and manufacturing facilities transferred from Lockheed Martin.
TASL and Lockheed Martin already have a joint venture (JV) that manufactures airframe components in Hyderabad, including for the C-130J Super Hercules airlifter and the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter.