The U.S. has offered to sell the GA-ASI Sea Guardian unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to India, as part of a planned boost in defense cooperation between the two countries. At a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington on June 26, they discussed what would be India’s first procurement of a high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAS. After the meeting, the White House stated that “the U.S. and India look forward to working together on advanced defense equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners of the United States.”
The Indian Navy has been seeking a long-endurance HALE UAS for maritime surveillance for some years. The Sea Guardian is a version of the MQ-9B Sky Guardian—also known as the Certifiable Predator B—that GA-ASI offers with a multimode maritime surface search radar and the Automatic Identification System (AIS—the maritime equivalent of IFF). Vivek Lall, GA-ASI’s chief executive officer for international strategic development, told AIN: “The U.S. offer demonstrates a major change in policy, because this type of capability is only exported to a select few of America's closest defense partners.”
The Indian Navy wants to acquire 22 shore-based HALE UAS. But since it plans to become a "Blue Water" navy that will protect trade routes and conduct anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, the requirement could increase to 45 to 50 systems. Delivery is expected within three years.
Nine years ago, the U.S. Navy chose Northrop Grumman’s Titan HALE UAS for maritime surveillance, in preference to a version of the Predator B that GA-ASI offered in partnership with Lockheed Martin. The U.S. Navy has since been developing cooperative concepts of operations (CONOPS) between the Triton and its Boeing P-8 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA). India has also acquired the P-8, and the Sea Guardian UAS will be similarly complementary to that fleet, an Indian naval official told AIN.
Meanwhile, with India having joined the Missile Technology Export Control Regime (MCTR) last year, the U.S. government is considering a request by the Indian Air Force for GA-ASI’s jet-powered Avenger UAS, an official told AIN. “Perhaps the U.S. is hesitant since they fall into Category 1, which the U.S. has released to only a few NATO allies,” the official said. The MTCR tightly controls Category 1 systems because of their ability to deliver nuclear weapons.
The White House statement also referred to the already agreed supply of C-17 airlifters and AH-64 attack helicopters to India, and the possible future supply of F-16 or F/A-18 fighters. The U.S Congress has just been notified of the possible sale of an additional C-17 to India. The sale is worth no less than $366 million for the single aircraft plus support package. Discussions continue over possible Indian participation in the U.S. Future Vertical Lift development program.
One unresolved issue between the two countries since 2005 is the signing of the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). This outlines strict safeguards for radio equipment, plus inspections by the U.S. on India’s military bases. Citing “issues related to sovereignty,” India has refused to sign it. “CISMOA is an enabler for joint operations with the U.S. However, for operations driven for India’s needs, there is no practical requirement for CISMOA,” said Rahul Gangal, a partner at defense consultancy Roland Berger.