Predator drones on agenda as Narendra Modi set to meet General Atomics CEO in US

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While the world will focus on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Washington visit from the Quad perspective and Indo-US ties, Modi's trip to the US also has a defence angle to it.

While in Washington, DC, the prime minister is scheduled to hold one-on-one meetings with top five American CEOs, including Shantanu Narayen from Adobe and Vivek Lall from General Atomics.

The visit with Vivek Lall will gain specific importance as Modi is trying to acquire 30 Predator drones, which are manufactured by General Atomics, to muscle up India's military capability.

What are Predator drones?

Named as 'MQ-9 Reaper' by the US Air Force and Royal Air Force customers, the Predator B is a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

The MQ-9 is the first hunter-killer UAV designed for long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance.

The Reaper has a 950-shaft-horsepower (712 kW) turboprop engine, allowing it to carry 15 times more ordnance payload and cruise at about three times the speed of its predecessor.

The craft can be flown for over 27 hours in the air at a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet.

According to defence contractors General Atomics, the drones possess the capabilities to be used for long-endurance intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions over a wide-area. Easy configuration of the drone makes it easier to operate the aircraft during missions.

India's Predator deal

The Predator deal first took root in the erstwhile Trump administration. In 2017, when Narendra Modi had visited the US, the two heads had discussed the deal after the Indian Army had shown interest in purchasing General Atomics Avenger UAV.

However, the deal didn't materialise then.

It was then announced in March of 2021 that the Indian Navy, Army and Air Force would finally jointly procure 30 armed versions of the American unmanned aerial system in what could be a $3 billion deal.

The procurement was being done as India faced a war-like situation on two front -- Pakistan and China.

It's important for India to acquire these armed drones as its own indigenous capability is limited.

Meanwhile, both Beijing and Islamabad operate Chinese-made armed drones. Pakistan is also eyeing to acquire some armed drones from Turkey.

Vivek Lall factor

It is learnt that Vivek Lall, the now Chief Executive at General Atomics Global Corporation, has been instrumental in driving major US-India defence deals worth around $18 billion.

He has played a key role in lifting India-US strategic and defence partnership to a next level.

In the realm of the Indo-US Defence partnership, he is credited with the bulk of advance technological platforms and weapons acquired by the Indian Armed Forces. While in his role with Boeing India, he was instrumental in bringing Harpoon Missile Systems, 10 C-17 Globemaster, a strategic military transport aircraft, P-8Is (Poseidon Eight India) Long Range Maritime Patrol aircraft, 28 Apache attack choppers and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters to India.

Experts believe that Modi's meet with Lall will push the deal ahead and also cement a tie with General Atomics, the world's leading nuclear and defence company.

India's recent leased drones

India is the third largest importer of (military grade) UAVs, with 6.8 percent share of the total UAV transfers or deliveries reported across the globe ending 2020, according to Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRIs) Arms Transfers database.

India's first UAV import was reported in 1998 from Israel, as per SIPRI's records. Most of the country's imported drones are surveillance and reconnaissance types.

Recently, India also signed a lease with Israel for four advanced Heron surveillance drones, which will be deployed along the Line of Actual Control with China for long surveillance missions.

Importance of drones in future warfare

Drones have become an integral part of warfare. Indian Army Chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, in a webinar organised by Centre for Land Warfare Studies, also highlighted the role of drones in military warfare.

The Indian Army Chief said that everyone has seen how the very imaginative and offensive use of drones in Idlib and then in Armenia-Azerbaijan, challenged the traditional prima donnas: the tanks, the artillery and the dug-in infantry.

Naravane also said that swarm drones could overwhelm and effectively suppress an enemy's air defence capability, creating windows of opportunities for strike elements. "It is also no longer necessary to score a physical hit to destroy a target.

"Offensive capabilities in the digital domain can effectively neutralise satellites and networks, denying them at critical juncture to decisively alter the course of the conflict," he had stated.

With inputs from agencies

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