India to seek higher tech transfer in $3bn drone deal with US

ByRahul Singh
Jun 25, 2023 12:33 AM IST

India seeks higher technology transfer in $3bn drone deal with the US for 31 MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicles, doubling the current 8-9% on offer

NEW DELHI: India will negotiate a higher element of technology transfer in a drone deal it is pursuing with the US to boost the military’s strength, top defence ministry officials said on Saturday. The acquisition of 31 MQ-9B General Atomics unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is estimated to be worth $3 billion.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) event in Washington DC on Friday. (ANI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) event in Washington DC on Friday. (ANI)

India is looking at doubling the element of technology transfer that is currently on offer, the officials said, seeking anonymity.

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“General Atomics is keen to tie up with Indian firms and manufacture components in the country. The current technology transfer offered by the US is 8% to 9% but there is scope to increase it to 15% to 20%. This will figure in the discussions,” one of the officials said.

To be assembled in India, the versatile platform will have the capability to strike targets with its on-board weapons, it will be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and its other roles include electronic warfare, defensive counter air and airborne early warning. The proposed deal found mention in the June 22 joint statement issued by the US and India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first state visit to the US.

“President Biden and Prime Minister Modi welcomed India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B HALE (high altitude long endurance) UAVs. The MQ-9Bs, which will be assembled in India, will enhance the ISR capabilities of India’s armed forces across domains,” the statement said.

General Atomics will also establish a comprehensive global MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) facility in India to support the country’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defence capabilities, it added.

India will formally begin the process to buy the drones by issuing a letter of request to the US government in early July, said a second official.

The letter is a significant step as it kicks off the foreign military sales programme -- Washington’s government-to-government method of selling US-built platforms. The US will respond with a letter of acceptance, after which the two sides will begin negotiations to finalise the deal.

India’s defence acquisitions council (DAC), the country’s apex weapons procurement body, had on June 15 given the clearance for buying the drones in the run-up to Modi’s visit to the US. Fifteen of these will be for the navy, and eight each for the army and the air force. Defence minister Rajnath Singh heads the DAC.

The Indian Navy currently operates a pair of MQ-9B UAVs leased from the US three years ago to boost its ISR capabilities. The drones have helped the navy keep a close watch on the Indian Ocean at a time when it has stepped up surveillance in the region to check China’s ambitions.

The drones have also been used for intelligence collection along the country’s northern borders where India has been locked in a border row with China for more than three years, a tense period that has seen a significant military build-up on both sides of the contested Line of Actual Control.

The acquisition of the armed drones gained urgency after the military standoff with China in Ladakh began in May 2020, increasing the Indian military’s need to enhance its vigil along the disputed border and stay prepared for any contingency.

Apart from the proposed purchase of drones, a deal to build jet engines in India with transfer of technology from the US was also in focus during Modi’s visit. GE Aerospace and Hindustan Aeronautics signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington on June 22 to produce the F414 engines in the country.

The deal to produce the jet engines for light combat aircraft Mk2 will involve 80% technology transfer from the US to India, is estimated to be worth $1 billion, and will result in the new fighter jet having an indigenous content of around 75%.

The deal to produce 99 F414 engines under licence is likely to be signed during the current financial year, and the first lot of engines will be made in India three years thereafter. The technology transfer will cover 11 critical areas, many of which were entirely off-limits more than a decade ago when GE Aerospace and India’s Aeronautical Development Agency began talks on the possible production of the engines in the country.

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