India, as a stop-gap measure, has leased two ‘Sky Guardian’ MQ-9B drones of the ‘Predator-B’ family produced by US company General Atomics. These are the same used by the US Navy.
This is clearly a bid by New Delhi to counter an increasingly assertive China at sea and also along the contested 3,488 kms of land borders between the two countries. The lease is for one year and is done as per ‘emergency purchase’ measures in force. The drones have arrived at the Indian Naval Station (INS) Rajali, which is also the home base for the Boeing P8I maritime surveillance planes.
The leasing of drones is separate from the ongoing procurement case for getting 30 such drones from GA. India is looking at two variants, one for use over land the other for use over sea. Indian establishment is looking at the Predator-B series from General Atomics . Off the Predator-B series, India is studying the MQ9 Reaper and also the MQ9B-Sky Guardian. Indian authorities estimate the deal to be between $ 3.5 billion to $ 4 Billion, the figure could vary depending upon the configuration of the UAS chosen.
The India Defence Dialogue (IDD) had reported in detail how New Delhi was looking to source two variations of an unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or Drones. One for a sea-going role and another one, a weaponised version for use over-land. Read full report here
What is the Sky Guardian
MQ-9B Sky Guardian is the next generation of the multi-mission Predator-B fleet.
“MQ-9B contains both hardware and software upgrades, such as improved structural fatigue and damage tolerance and more robust flight control software, as well as enhancements allowing operations in adverse weather including icing conditions. Additionally, the aircraft will be designed to survive bird and lightning strikes.,” says the General Atomics website while describing it.
This would buttress the Indian Navy’s fleet of Boeing P8I maritime surveillance planes in keeping an eye in the Indian Ocean. One of the busiest shipping routes passes close to India before it passes across the Malacca straits into the South China Sea and beyond.
The Marine drone, the MQ9 Sea Guardian, carries a Lynx multi-mode radar for littoral surveillance capability including an Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) mode, as well as multi-contact detection, cueing and tracking functions.
The MQ-9B Sky Guardian, the upgrade of the Predator-B is highly modular and is easily configured with a variety of payloads to meet mission requirements. The aircraft is capable of carrying multiple mission payloads and includes a state-of-the art Detect and Avoid (DAA) system including space, weight, and power provisions to enable the retrofitting of an airborne Due Regard Radar (DRR) for operation in non-cooperative airspace.
MQ-9B Sky Guardian set an endurance record as the aircraft when it flew in a unarmed configuration for more than 48 consecutive hours in April 2017. It has a range of over 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 Kms ) and is equipped with nine hard-points for sensor or weapons carriage with over 2,100 kg (4,000 lbs.) of available payload.
Why the drones now
The ongoing military stand-off between India and China since early May this year has led to a serious situation and New Delhi conveyed to the US its fresh interest in armed drones from General Atomics.
The rugged Himalayas, which create a boundary between the India and China have vast areas which are physically inaccessible due to the terrain – perennial snow and altitude — from the Indian side, but have rather easier access from the Chinese side.
Although the US had initially offered to sell 30 Sea Guardians (the unarmed naval variant) The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force want a combat drone especially in these tense times. The freedom of doing multiple tasks using the Predator-B series is the added advantage.
The armed version can fire missiles like the hellfire. A Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine, integrated with Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEEC), powers it.