The past few months have had their mornings heralded by a variety of good and great news on a regular, if not daily basis. This has ranged from 100% electrification of all Indian villages to smashing of leftist terror infrastructure to import of Uranium from Australia and so on. The national security situation has specifically seen its fair share of good news, with the induction of a variety of state-of-the-art systems in the armed forces. In continuation of the transformational changes we are seeing, comes the news of Donald Trump’s USA agreeing for sales of the advanced armed drones to India. The key aspect in this development is the fact that it would be the first instance of sale of armed version of the drones. Just last year, as a precursor to the maiden Modi-Trump meet, the US administration had agreed for the sale of 22 unarmed Predator drones, what was on offer were Guardian version of Predator B drones. However, that agreement had not turned into a firm purchase order until earlier this year as both sides were working on the details of the transaction. Notably, the Indian side was looking to extend the scope and depth of what we would be getting for the money we were going to spend on them, chiefly the ability of the unmanned vehicles to bear arms. It is in this context that the new developments with USA agreeing to fulfil Indian requirements of weaponized system bring additional cheer to the Indian summer.
The drones which were on offer earlier were the maritime version of the Predator B/Reaper drones, with their electro-optical infrared sensors optimized for keeping an eye on the high seas as well as marine search radars. While these would be very useful for Indian Navy to maintain a state of constant surveillance on India’s ocean, these were not armed and hence their utility in combat would be limited. This would be so because the time taken to get an armed response over extensive distances encountered in a maritime scenario would render the intelligence on the threats identified by the UAVs largely ineffective. To illustrate the same with a practical real life scenario; in times of peace, a unit of such aircrafts based in Andaman Islands could range all the way from straits of Malacca to Hambantota keeping an eye on merchant shipping and piracy but more importantly, movement of Chinese naval assets as they moved from Eastern Chinese seaboard towards Indian waters. Very recently there had been news of Indian Navy ‘greeting’ Chinese vessels with a ‘Happy Hunting’ message as they entered Indian Ocean region ostensibly for anti-piracy patrols, letting them know that they were under watch by Indian Navy as they moved through our waters. Here, a Guardian drone would be well suited for overwatch, providing a constant tail on hostile naval assets in our region. It could also range over Open Ocean looking out for Chinese nuclear submarines as they break surface for communication and other purposes.
#MaritimeDomainAwareness @indiannavy extends a warm welcome to the 29th Anti-Piracy Escort Force (APEF) of PLA(N) in Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Happy Hunting @SpokespersonMoD @DefenceMinIndia @IAF_MCC @adgpi @IndiaCoastGuard @IndianDiplomacy pic.twitter.com/7NTW4TwQuW
— SpokespersonNavy (@indiannavy) April 17, 2018
At the same time however, if India was at war, an unarmed drone trailing a flotilla of warships would be most vulnerable to being attacked and destroyed as it shadowed the same. The bigger problem would be in its role as a submarine hunter. A nuclear submarine would rarely surface in times of war, and if at it was to do so, it would be only for very short duration and under extreme conditions. They would do so to discharge a missile load or cross narrow straits where submerged navigation is difficult and sometimes they could perhaps do so to communicate with rest of the fleet for operational maneuvers. In such a situation, finding the enemy vessel is an extremely challenging task, but that is not enough. Though, a network of eyes in skies constantly prowling over the IOR region would come in handy in terms of providing a constant unbroken vigil, it does not address how a threat will be responded to. As important as it is to catch an enemy submarine in open waters, it is still not sufficient by itself. It would again dive and the drones would lose track of a submerged vessel, even if cued by other undersea sensor network. What is critical then, is to attack the target as soon as it presents itself. An unarmed plane would not be able to do that. The Indian insistence on having armed drones is essentially driven from the operational flexibility such a system would provide us with. At a relatively lower cost as compared to a full aircraft system, of roughly $80-100 million per UAV as compared to $250-300 million for a P8I Poseidon platform, Indian navy would get a substantial force multiplier and an effective volume based system.
It is here now that the story begins to get even more interesting. The recent articles in press quote unnamed sources that US has agreed to supply armed Predator-B drones to India, while in the same breath saying, that these would be “capable of hunting and destroying targets across seas and over land.” Now, the interesting part of the story is that the Predator-B/Reaper drones still do not have an extensive anti-shipping weapons suite available yet. The first demonstration of anti-submarine capabilities of MQ-9 platform only happened late last year where it was able to demonstrate cueing of drone from the sona-buoy sensor network to detect submarines and provide persistent tracking of submerged targets. In addition, they were able to demonstrate wide angle opto-electrical sensors to detect, identify and track surface vessels. The interesting point to note is that the anti-submarine operations being talked about in this context are still limited to detection and surveillance roles and does not talk about destroying targets. In fact, there is tentative talk of pairing Predator-B with Brimstone missiles adapted to dual use, but there has been no movement on that front, yet. Given the available information, how the platform would fill into a hunter-killer role, is suspect.
But, there is another Predator which was created specifically to fulfill hunter-killer role, specifically in the maritime environment; it is the Predator-C/Avenger platform. Designed specifically to meet the requirements of Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, it was intended to provide an autonomous carrier-based unmanned combat aerial vehicle providing an unmanned intelligence and strike asset to the US Naval fleet. There are a few critical components that made Predator-C/Avenger a platform tailored towards strike duties. For one, it is powered by a turbofan engine 17.75 kn of thrust as opposed to Predator-B being a turbofan with a power rating of 671 kW; the more powerful engine allows Predator-C to have a maximum loaded take off weight of 8,255 kg and a payload of 3,600 kg as opposed to Predator-B of 4,760 kg maximum take off weight and a payload of 1,800 kgs. In addition, the larger Avenger also includes stealth features such as internal weapons storage, and an S-shaped exhaust for reduced infrared and radar signatures. This was a weapon designed primarily for offensive purposes and not only surveillance. As such, this is a system which meets the criterion what India has been looking for. There is further validation of the same; articles in 2017 time frame talked about active IAF interest in the Avenger platform where 80-100 units of the same were being looked at in a whooping $8 Billion deal. There has been significant interest from General Atomics for the sale. The company had indicated that it was engaged with an unnamed foreign nation on a potential Avenger purchase. While the company did not disclose the name of the country which it was working with, the independent Reuters reports and other media reports expressing India’s interest in the specific platform tied the large sale to India. There is an additional fortunate coincidence, the changing requirements of USAF and US Navy coupled with budget cuts meant that the original purpose of the craft was not needed by the home country in immediate time frame, and the system did not see proliferation. General Atomics has since then been looking to find a home for its investment, and this would be a good candidate for the entire line to be done out of India under a Make in India initiative. This would be the case where the interests of the two complement each other quite nicely.
In the past, Indian interest in the system was held up due to MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), but as India has navigated its way into the club as well as Wassenaar Arrangement in December 2017, slowly but surely the legal hurdles coming in the way of such a sale are being cleared and policy framework enabling the sale is now largely unhindered. While there does remain some work to be done by US on addressing Indian concerns on end-use monitoring mechanism and access to the complete encryption keys and electronics and communication hardware of the system, these are not specific to Predator C vs B and would need to get sorted out for both. There is also the issue from US side of Indian acceptance of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). 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 and so far India had been chary of going down that route.
Nevertheless, given that this is being driven at the highest levels on both governments not merely as an arms sales but as an strategic initiative dovetailing into the Indo-Pacific architecture that has been discussed before, one is very hopeful of the legal red-tape being sorted out in short order to enable a game-changing move in the partnership between the two countries.