- It is a very distinct possibility that India may end up buying 30 drones worth $3 billion from the US
- The cost of the deal is casting a shadow of doubts on its viability
- Currently India needs just a stop-gap arrangement and spending $3 billion is looking costly
Emotions are tough to handle. Often, they cloud logical aspects of the brain. The phenomenon gets multiplied many-fold when it comes to emotions about nationalistic interests. The sheer enormity of the price tag and features of US’ MQ-9B has made us forget what Israel’s Heron TP drones could do for India.
IS MQ-9B coming to India?
According to reports available in the public domain, soon India will be acquiring 30 advanced drones from the United States. Apparently, negotiations are in advanced stages. India looks set to purchase 30 armed Predator drones from the United States. According to the deal approved by the Defence Acquisition Council in 2021, Army, Navy and Air Force are slated to get 10 Predator drones each.
These drones will cost $3 billion (Rs 22,000 crore) to the state exchequer. A simple calculation will tell you that for each drone, the Modi government will pay $100 million. The sheer cost is one of the main reasons why it is stuck in the pipeline for a long time. So much so, that earlier this year, media reports had emerged claiming that the deal was cancelled, only to later find out that it was put on hold.
Read more: The art of diplomacy – How India mollified a grumpy US
Is MQ-9B worth it?
It is true that the MQ-9B is the best drone of its category and its presence in armoury of India is enough to send shivers down China’s spine. But the pertinent question is whether its cost-benefit analysis is positive for India. Whether the capacities it provides or enhances is actually needed by India in this current juncture of time? Can we not hold our fort for a few more years before our home-grown drone industry becomes fully capable to cater to our needs? To answer these questions let’s have a look at how MQ-9B will assist India?
Pros of American drones
According to reports available in the public domain, the Guardian version of MQ-9B confirms to NATO STANAG 4671 standards, which means it can fly anywhere, including commercial space. It can fly 15km above the Earth’s surface and its maximum speed is 400km per hour. Its fuel storage capacity allows it to stay airborne for 35 hours. Its sophisticated tech makes it mostly immune to mechanical and electric failures. Due to this, it can perform long-endurance, medium-altitude intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
Its weapon load capacity is the reason why US military deploys it to conflict-affected zones, especially in Middle-east conflict zones. After earmarking the target’s location, its GPS-guided system can bomb the target with precision in the range of metres. It can carry 8 Hellfire missiles, 2 Sidewinder or two AMRAAM air-to-air missiles, 2 Maverick missiles, two 227 kg smart bombs (laser or GPS guided). Its total payload capacity is 2,177 kilograms.
In other words, MQ-9B can undertake surveillance or reconnaissance in areas around PoK and LAC and if needed, it can also carry out small-scale precision strikes. Even the US military has been using it for similar purposes, albeit in different geographical tracts. Hellfire missiles on these drones came into limelight only because recently they were used to execute Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan.
Read more: India readies its defence forces for more Balakot-style missions in Pakistan and China
Israel’s IAI Eitan
But, if surveillance and quick bombing are the only requirements, what makes Indian government not go all out on export version of Isarel’s IAI Eitan, technically named as Heron TP? In many ways, the Heron TP is better than the MQ-9B. For instance, while the range of MQ-9 sea guardian is 2,222 km, Heron TP can fly upto 7,400 kilometres. In terms of its on-air capacity, it is just inches close to Guardian class drones. While Guardians can fly 15km above the Earth’s surface, fuel efficiency of Heron TP can take it as far as 14 km. Its endurance (30+ hours) is one negative factor which goes against it.
Endurance problems can be compensated by the maximum speed Hero TP drones can attain. They can fly 82 km per hour faster (482km per hour) than Guardian class drones made by the United States. Even in terms of payload, Israeli drones are more potent. Compared to American drone’s payload capacity of 2,177 kilograms, Israeli Heron TP can carry 2,700 kg of payload.
This payload includes guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles as well. They use these weapons only after their intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance roles are complete. Additionally, they are also used for purposes such as aerial refuelling, missile defence, long-range strategic strike among others.
Checking the viability of optimising Heron drones?
India has been a customer for Heron class drones for quite some time now. By December last year, India had nearly 90 Heron drones, though the majority of them were unarmed and were mainly for the purpose of surveillance. However, things took a radical shift when the Indian Army received 4 Heron TP drones which are capable of armed strikes.
Moreover, the Defence Ministry is taking Project Cheetah on war footing. Under this project, erstwhile unarmed Heron drones are being upgraded to undertake specialised and longer surveillance missions & precision strikes. Reportedly, Israeli companies are collaborating with the Indian defence establishment to carry out the project costing Rs 5,000 crores.
Unfavourable terms of deal in Guardian drones
Another aspect which makes Heron TP drones more viable for India is that General Atomics, the company which manufactures MQ-9B is not ready for transfer of technology. Additionally, even offset clause, otherwise mandatory for most defence deals is also a bone of contention for the Indian government. This is one of the possible reasons why in spite of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden trying hard, the deal has not been finalised till the time of writing this article. It is pertinent to note that Donald Trump had given green signal to the deal way back in 2017. 5 years is too long for finalising a $3 Billion deal.
Indigenous combat drones are on the way
Within these 5 years, India too has moved miles ahead when it comes to indigenous drone capability. When Trump okayed the deal, India was reliant on foreign firms for the deal. But under Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) initiative, Made in India armed drones will soon be a reality. For surveillance purpose, Mumbai based ideaForge has already got approval to deliver 200 SWITCH UAVs.
In the domain of combat drones, we already have capabilities to produce DRDO Ghatak and TAPAS-BH-201. Both of these drones are useful for all 3 services. TAPAS is in fact being designed on the lines of MQ-1 drones. By the end of 2023, home-made drones are slated to run the rooster. However, it is also true that it will take a few years for indigenous combat drone industry to mature.
Read more: Indian defence forces to get emergency powers to acquire critical weapon systems through fast-track route
Until we get to that level, we need to rely on imports. But the government needs to be sensible about it. It is not wise spending $100 million on what Heron TP could do in $35 million. It may turn out to be a classic case of a toy costing more than the child.
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