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India Plans First Armed Drone Purchase from U.S. to Counter China

The Indian military will acquire its first armed drones from the U.S. in a planned $3 billion purchase, Indian government officials with knowledge of the matter revealed Tuesday.

The Indian government is expected to approve a purchase of 30 MQ-9B Predator drones manufactured by San Diego-based company General Atomics in April, officials said on condition of anonymity.

MQ-9B drones carry a nearly 4,000-pound payload and can fly for roughly 48 hours. Their capabilities will allow the Indian Navy “to better monitor Chinese warships in the southern Indian Ocean, and equip the army to engage targets along the disputed India-Pakistan border in the Himalayas,” according to Bloomberg. The drones operated by the Indian military are currently unarmed and used only for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.

India has been engaged in a tense standoff with China along their unmarked boundary in the western Himalayas since a bloody border skirmish in northern India’s Ladakh state resulted in the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an estimated 40 Chinese troops in June.

“Last year, India leased two unarmed MQ-9 Predators as border tensions with China threatened to spin into a full-blown conflict. In the end, they weren’t deployed after the Air Force expressed apprehension about drones manned by U.S. personnel flying over the border,” Bloomberg recalled Tuesday.

The Indian Navy is actively engaged with the U.S. to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean. The U.S., Indian, Japanese, and Australian navies joined forces late last year in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea – both located in the Indian Ocean – for coordinated naval drills. Observers viewed the two-part “Malabar 2020” naval exercises as a regional deterrent to China’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Indian and U.S. navies launched the Malabar exercises in 1992 as a bilateral drill which has been conducted annually since then. Japan joined the Malabar drill in 2015; Australia’s navy participated in the exercises first in 2007 and again last year.

India, Japan, Australia, and the U.S. form a strategic alliance known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. The Quad, as it is often referred, aims to counter Chinese expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a meeting with the foreign ministers of Quad member nations in Tokyo, Japan in October 2020. U.S. President Joe Biden will meet virtually with his counterparts in India, Australia, and Japan on March 12 to discuss their respective countries’ roles in the Quad. The world leaders are expected to address “regional and global issues of shared interest, and exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” according to the Indian foreign ministry.

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