US offers India armed version of Guardian drone

First sale to a country outside NATO alliance

Published: July 19, 2018 22:03:38 | Updated: July 21, 2018 11:43:16

US service member passing in front of an MQ-9 Reaper drone — Reuters

The United States (US) has offered India the armed version of Guardian drones that were originally authorised for sale as unarmed for surveillance purposes, reports Reuters.

If the deal comes to fruition, it would be the first time Washington has sold a large armed drone to a country outside the NATO alliance.

It would also be the first high-tech unmanned aircraft in the region, where tensions between India and Pakistan run high.

In April, President Donald Trump's administration rolled out a long-awaited overhaul of US arms export policy aimed at expanding sales to allies, saying it would bolster the American Defence industry and create jobs at home.

The plan included a new drone export policy that allowed lethal drones that can fire missiles, and surveillance drones of all sizes, to be more widely available to allies.

One administrative hurdle to the deal is that Washington is requiring India to sign up to a communications framework that some in New Delhi worry might be too intrusive, the US official said.

The drones were on the agenda at a canceled meeting between Indian and the US ministers of state and Defence that was set for July, the sources said. The top level meeting is now expected to take place in September.

Last June, General Atomics said the US government had approved the sale of a naval variant of the drone. India has been in talks to buy 22 of the unarmed surveillance aircraft, MQ-9B Guardian, worth more than $2 billion to keep watch over the Indian Ocean. Besides potentially including the armed version of the drone, the sources said the number of aircraft had also changed.

An Indian Defence source said the military wanted a drone not just for surveillance but also to be able to hunt down targets at land and sea. The military had argued the costs of acquisition did not justify buying an unarmed drone.

The cost and integration of the weapons system are still issues, as well as Indian assent to the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which Washington insists on as a condition for operating advanced Defence systems.

India, the Defence source said, has shed its opposition to the agreement after an assurance from the United States it would apply largely to US-procured weapons systems such as fighter planes and drones and not to the large Russian-origin equipment with the Indian military.

US drone manufacturers, facing growing competition overseas, especially from Chinese and Israeli rivals which often sell under lighter restrictions, have lobbied hard for the changes in US export rules.

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