In a race against time, the Biden administration is intensifying efforts to cut through India’s bureaucratic red tape and finalize a lucrative agreement for dozens of state-of-the-art armed drones ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s highly-anticipated visit to Washington. Sources familiar with the matter have revealed that the deal for SeaGuardian drones, a long-standing interest of India, has been hindered by administrative obstacles for years.
The White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon have seized the opportunity presented by Modi’s scheduled visit on June 22, urging India to showcase tangible progress on the agreement. Negotiators are striving to secure a purchase of up to 30 armable MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, manufactured by General Atomics, with an estimated worth of $2-3 billion.
During Modi’s visit, discussions are also expected to encompass collaborations in co-production of munitions and ground vehicles, such as armored personnel carriers. The objective is to strengthen the strategic ties between the world’s two largest democracies and foster advancements in military technology, despite the absence of a formal security alliance.
The Biden administration’s emphasis on forging closer relations with India serves as a key pillar in its strategy to counter the expanding influence of China. However, Washington has expressed concern over India’s continued defense and economic associations with Russia following the Ukrainian conflict.
The breakthrough in India’s bureaucratic impasse regarding the drone deal hinges on the generation of an “Acceptance of Necessity” document, a vital precursor to the formal “Letter of Request” required to initiate the foreign military sale process. At present, it remains uncertain whether New Delhi has produced the necessary internal document.
According to a senior Biden administration official, the decision to proceed with the purchase of MQ-9s lies primarily in the hands of the Indian government. The official stated, “We think it would be good for them to go through with the purchase of MQ-9s. But those decisions are sort of more in the hands of India than they are of us.”
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s arrival in New Delhi on Tuesday further emphasizes the significance attached to the upcoming visit. Sullivan’s visit aims to finalize preparations and ensure that the topic remains a prominent agenda item.
While discussions are underway, India’s defense ministry has yet to make a final determination on the number of drones to be acquired. Initial estimates suggested a purchase of 30, but subsequent revisions have lowered the figure to 24 and then 18 last month. However, caution must be exercised as these figures are subject to change.
Furthermore, India is also seeking domestic manufacturing of certain components, adding a layer of complexity to the potential deal.
It is worth noting that the Quad grouping, comprising the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, all possess operational experience with the MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones. Presently, India leases MQ-9Bs as part of its intelligence-gathering operations.
As the clock ticks down, the diplomatic push to secure this substantial armed drone agreement intensifies, underscoring the significance of Modi’s visit in shaping the future trajectory of US-India relations in defense and technology cooperation.