India is in the final stages of preparing a Letter of Request (LoR) for the acquisition of 31 MQ-9B Reaper drones from the United States. The deal, valued at an estimated $3 billion, was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington on June 22, 2023.
The LoR represents the initial step in the arms contract process between the US government and a foreign nation, followed by the Letter of Acceptance (LoA) from the US Department of Defense, ultimately leading to a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) agreement.
The signing of the contract for the MQ-9B drones may occur before the Indian government’s elections in March 2024. Out of the 31 drones, 15 are intended for the Indian Navy, while the Indian Air Force and Army will receive eight each. The first ten drones will be delivered in a flyaway condition within four years of contract signing, with the remaining 21 to be assembled in India.
Sources suggest that the procurement of MQ-9B drones may involve two separate contracts. The first is a Performance Based Logistics Agreement and the establishment of a Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) facility in India.
The second contract is expected to be between General Atomics and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for the indigenous design and development of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) platforms similar to the MQ-9, which can operate at altitudes exceeding 15 km. The Indian Ministry of Defence also aims to equip the MQ-9s with indigenously developed software-defined radios and indigenous missiles like the BVR Astra, an Indian family of beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles developed by the DRDO.
The MQ-9B Reaper has a range of over 1,850 km and can remain airborne for more than 24 hours. It is equipped with nine hardpoints, allowing it to carry various munitions, sensors, and perform a range of missions, including long-range maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, and air-to-surface strikes.
The acquisition of these drones represents a significant step in bolstering the strategic partnership between India and the United States. The Indian Navy has been operating two MQ-9 Sea Guardians since 2020, which were leased from the US and play a crucial role in monitoring the Indian Ocean and tracking the deployments of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in response to the Ladakh standoff with China in the same year.