India leases top-notch US drones for surveillance amid border row with China

India has inducted two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones for top-notch surveillance missions on lease from an American firm, in a huge capability jump for the armed forces amidst the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh.

The two unarmed Sea Guardians, variants of the iconic armed Predator drones, have already kicked off long-range ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) missions over the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) from naval air station INS Rajali at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu, said defence ministry sources on Wednesday.

“The drones can also be deployed along the Line of Actual Control with China if required. The naval P-8I maritime patrol aircraft, for instance, are already being extensively used along the land border to keep tabs on the People’s Liberation Army,” said a source.

The lease of the two drones from US firm General Atomics is seen as a prelude to India’s plan to buy 18 to 30 ‘hunter-killer’ weaponized Sea Guardian or MQ-9 Reaper drones, with possible fast-track procurement of six of them.

The two Sea Guardians have been taken on a one-year lease from American firm General Atomics, which can be extended for another year.

The lease is yet another strong indicator of the continuing strategic partnership between India and the US despite the impending change from the Trump to the Biden administration.

As it is, the US is closely cooperating with India in the intelligence-sharing and other domains in view of the ongoing military confrontation with China in eastern Ladakh, much like it did during the Doklam face-off in June-August 2017. “The two drones, inducted under the Navy’s emergency procurement powers granted by the defence ministry, began their ISR missions on November 21. They are doing extremely well,” said the source.

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