India is in early talks with the United States to buy predator drones, which were used to kill al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last month. Reportedly, India is in negotiations with the United States to buy 30 MQ-9B armed drones for over $3 billion to crank up its surveillance apparatus along the frontier with China as well as in the Indian Ocean region, people familiar with the developments said on Sunday.
The MQ-9B drone is a variant of the MQ-9 "Reaper" which was used to launch a modified version of the Hellfire missile that eliminated al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the heart of Kabul last month.
Authoritative sources in the defence establishment said talks between New Delhi and Washington are underway for the government-to-government procurement of the General Atomics-built drones, and rejected reports that the deal is off the table.
"We understand that the MQ-9B acquisition programme is at an advanced stage of discussion between the U.S. and Indian governments," Dr. Vivek Lall, the Chief Executive for the General Atomics Global Corporation, said.
"Any questions on those discussions should be addressed specifically to the respective governments. From a company perspective, General Atomics is ready to support India and values our longtime relationship," Dr. Lall added.
The hunter-killer drones are being procured as they can carry out a variety of roles, including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare and over-the-horizon targeting.
The high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drones are capable of remaining airborne for over 35 hours and can carry four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kg of bombs.
In 2020, the Indian Navy had taken on lease two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics for one year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The lease period has been extended subsequently.
The Indian Navy has been bolstering its surveillance mechanism to monitor growing Chinese activities including frequent forays by PLA warships in the Indian Ocean Region.
When asked about the two drones, Dr Lall said they have performed "very well" and flew close to 3,000 hours in support of the Indian Navy's maritime and land border patrol objectives.
"General Atomics has supported India over the past three years by providing two MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft as part of a Company Owned/Company Operated (COCO) lease agreement," he said.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri killed
Ayman al-Zawahari, who assumed the leadership of al-Qaeda after the death of Osama bin Laden, was killed in a “precision strike” carried out by the CIA in the Afghan capital of Kabul on July 30. President Joe Biden declared that “justice has been delivered and this terrorist is no more”.
Zawahiri, 71, remained a visible international symbol of the group, 11 years after the US killed bin Laden in Pakistan. He was killed in a drone strike carried out at a house in Kabul where he was sheltering to reunite with his family.
(with PTI inputs)