India’s proposed $3.5 billion acquisition of the 31 drones — 15 Sea Guardians for Navy and eight Sky Guardians each for Army and IAF — will hugely boost its capabilities for long-range ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike missions both in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as well as its land borders with China and Pakistan.
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Officials hope the co-production of the GE-F414 INS6 turbo-fan engines in India to power the indigenous Tejas Mark-2 fighters — existing Tejas Mark1 jets have GE-F404 engines procured without any transfer of technology (ToT) — in turn will pave the way for a robust defence-industrial collaboration in other arenas as well.
These range from Stryker armoured fighting vehicles and long-range artillery to smart munitions and underwater domain awareness. Despite divergences on Russia and other issues, the jet engines and drones together underscore the expanding strategic convergence between India and the US to stave off China’s ever-growing aggressive challenge in the Indo-Pacific.
The US, of course, is also very keen to wean India off its huge dependence on Russian military wares. India is a willing partner in the quest, though it remains steadfast on retaining its strategic autonomy. India has over the decades failed to build its own jet engines and armed HALE (high altitude, long-endurance) drones, both of which are critical technologies required to overcome its strategically vulnerable position as the world’s largest arms importer.
With the US itself bagging lucrative Indian military deals worth over $21 billion in just the last 15 years, an official said, “We want to move away from this mere buyer-seller relationship.” The MoU between General Electric and defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics to jointly produce GEF414 engines in the 98 Kilonewton thrust class, with 80% to 100% ToT, is expected to herald a new era.
“The GE-F414 engines, which power American F/A-18 Super Hornets and Swedish Gripen fighters, were finally on offer now after several years of talks and bureaucratic hurdles.” “The GE-F414 engine factory in India should hopefully come up in two-three years. But in the future, we will require more powerful 110 Kilo -newton engines for our planned fifth-generation stealth AMCA (advanced medium combat aircraft) project,” he added.
Similarly, the procurement of 31 MQ-9B drones, with their associated mobile ground con -trol systems, Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, precisionguided munitions and other associated equipment, is to meet “immediate operational requirements”.
“With MRO (maintenance, repair, over-haul) facilities for the MQ-9B to be set up in India, which can cater to countries like Japan and Australia, DRDO should get the experience to build such drones in the future,” another official said. Once the contract for the MQ-9B drones is inked under the US government’s foreign military sales programme (FMS) after formal technical commercial negotiations, India hopes to induct the first lot of 10 in one to two years, with the others coming in batches every six months.
“We want to complete the induction in six seven years. But it will depend on the production capacity of General Atomics,” the official said. India, incidentally, has been effectively using two unarmed Sea Guardians, acquired by the Navy on lease since September 2020, for ISR missions in the IOR as well as the 3,488-km Line of Actual Control with China.