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Explained: Why India sought US drones to keep an eye on China

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NEW DELHI: India is in advanced stages of discussion with the United States to buy armed drones for over $3 billion to bolster surveillance along the China border as well as in the Indian Ocean region.

The development comes even as foreign minister

S Jaishankar

has blamed China for having “disregarded” border agreements “going back to the 1990s which prohibits bringing mass troops in the border area”.

What’s so special?

  • The MQ-9B is a hunter-killer drone that is essentially a variant of the MQ-9 Reaper drone used to kill Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul last month. A high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drone, it can remain airborne for over 35 hours and can carry four Hellfire missiles and around 450 kgs of bombs.
  • It’s available in two variants — the SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian — with the latter in use by the Indian Navy, which had taken two of those on lease in 2020 for a period of one year, which was later extended.

Why India needs drones

  • Singling out China, Jaishankar, who’s on a three-nation tour of South America — Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina — said that India needed “that mutual respect and mutual sensitivity” from China and added that “it’s no secret we are going through a very difficult phase.”
  • The acquisition of the drones — with all three armed forces getting 10 each — will allow the Indian defence forces to bolster their unmanned military weapons and surveillance programme, especially in eastern Ladakh and for tracking movements of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean region, which the navy has been doing for some months now using these drones.

Not just a deal

  • The acquisition of the drones, if and when it comes about, would mark another step in the growing military cooperation between the US and India. In February 2020, India signed a $2.6 billion deal with the US for the procurement of 24 MH-60 Romeo helicopters for the Indian Navy, delivery of which has already begun.
  • This was preceded by the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016 which allows the armed forces of both to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies.

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