US offer of Sea Guardian drones to India signals converging strategic interests

ByJohn Schaus
Jul 05, 2017 04:47 PM IST

Rhetorical ambitions must be translated into tangible progress and both countries must work more closely on mutually beneficial efforts

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington last week was clearly an effort by both Modi and United States President Donald Trump to demonstrate that India-US ties remain strong and continue to deepen. The repeated embraces — three by most counts — serve as a visual reminder the continued closeness between the two countries.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial manoeuvres. (File photo for representative purposes)(REUTERS)
An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted drone aircraft performs aerial manoeuvres. (File photo for representative purposes)(REUTERS)

The joint statement presents a range of issues where India and the US will work more closely.

One item stood out as particularly important: The US “offered for India’s consideration the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems.” This is significant for three reasons.

First, if India and the US are able to reach an agreement on a deal for this type of an unmanned aerial system (UAS), it could mark the first transfer by the US of such a system to a non-ally country. The Sea Guardian, a large payload, long-endurance UAS platform is a variant of the Predator UAS system used by the US military and department of homeland security. The unarmed Sea Guardian is designed to provide advanced surveillance capability for maritime and littoral missions — an increasingly important mission for India as it seeks to play a larger role in securing the sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean.

Second, in announcing this offer to India, Trump effectively signalled that the US has staked out a new policy position in India’s favour regarding potential constraints imposed under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). This voluntary arms control agreement calls for a “strong presumption of denial”, for transfers of large UAS to other member-states. The regime, of which both India and the US are members, was established to limit the proliferation of missile technology (including UAS) that could deliver weapons of mass destruction. The Sea Guardian falls into the most tightly constrained Category I under MTCR.

While there are good arguments for decoupling UAS from the MTCR, it is not clear that US policymakers has resolved that debate for exports globally, nor has the discussion been broached in a significant way across the range of the MTCR member-countries. This significant step in India’s favour should not be overlooked.

Third, in offering India Sea Guardians, the US recognises that India is a maritime partner and the interests of both nations are aligning. Should India choose the Sea Guardian for its maritime surveillance missions, it would enable even greater cooperation.

As India and the US work to deepen bilateral ties, a necessary condition will be aligned — or at least more closely aligning — interests. Over the past two Indian administrations, and now on to the third consecutive US presidential administration, we are seeing that.

Equally important, however, will be continuing to find concrete areas of cooperation where rhetorical ambitions are translated into tangible progress and both countries working more closely together on mutually beneficial efforts. In offering a large unmanned maritime patrol aircraft, the two leaders have achieved just that.

John Schaus is fellow, International Security Programme, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The views expressed are personal

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