India to Make Massive Purchase of US Reaper Drones

Indian Air Force procures 31 MQ-9B SeaGuardian aircraft in a deal worth more than $3 billion.

General Atomics’ MQ-9B SeaGuardian may soon be on its way to India. [Courtesy: General Atomics]

The long-awaited sale of $3 billion worth of Reaper drones to the Indian Air Force is on the brink of approval.

First reported by Reuters, India’s order for 31 MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from the U.S. government is on the precipice of going through after India’s defense ministry approved it. The deal was initially brokered for 22 SeaGuardian aircraft all the way back in 2017 but has stalled for years.

According to General Atomics, use cases for the MQ-9B, also known as the Reaper, range from disaster relief and search and rescue to anti-submarine warfare and long-range surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance.

The sale of MQ-9B drones, manufactured by defense contractor General Atomics, will net the U.S. government just more than $3 billion. But the move has larger geopolitical implications, potentially serving to ward off China’s growing military or reduce India’s reliance on Russian drone technology. The U.S. in recent months has been working to strengthen its defense ties with India.

Per The Times of India, the defense ministry’s Defense Acquisition Council submitted an initial “acceptance of necessity” for the deal, the first major step toward pushing it through. Now, it awaits clearance from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, which is expected to be announced next week when Modi meets with President Joe Biden.

Since November 2020—around the time the deal was supposed to have been approved—the Indian Air Force has been operating two leased SeaGuardian drones, capable of flying more than 30 hours at an altitude of more than 40,000 feet. So far, they’ve logged thousands of flight hours conducting surveillance along the Indian coastline.

Still, a final purchase agreement between the two sides has yet to come to fruition. In February 2022, conflicting reports conversely characterized the deal as on hold or in advanced stages as it awaited approval from India’s defense ministry. But if recent reports are accurate, it seems the latter outlook was the correct one.

India’s SeaGuardian order, if approved, appears to be the largest purchase of MQ-9B aircraft, which also exist in a SkyGuardian variant. Publicized deals have typically consisted of a handful of SeaGuardian deliveries—only a few have included more than 10. The drone is operated by several U.S. allies, such as the U.K. and Belgium.

It’s worth noting, though, the deal will not be final until Modi’s cabinet submits a formal “letter of request” to initiate the sale. Previous reports have also suggested the final number of MQ-9B aircraft to be delivered may be revised down.

Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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