General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone
General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.General Atomics

With an eye on expanding defence ties and helping domestic arms manufacturers, the US has offered an armed version of the Guardian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) known as the MQ-9 Reaper to India. If the deal is finalised, it would be the first time a country outside of NATO will be getting an American armed drone.

The Guardian, which is primarily used for surveillance, will also be the first high-tech UAV to fly over the subcontinent. The MQ-9 Reaper, which is used extensively by the US Air Force carries four Hellfire air to ground missiles as its primary weapon and has an endurance of 14 hours.

The export of the drone is part of US' new arms export policy which envisages increasing exports to friendly countries and creating new jobs in the American defence industry. Under the policy, armed and surveillance drones will be made available to allies in much greater numbers than any time previously.

In June 2017, the US government had approved the sale of the naval version of the Guardian UAV. At that time India wanted the unarmed MQ-9B Guardian surveillance UAV to patrol the vast Indian Ocean to keep a watch on Chinese naval activities. A deal worth more than $2 billion to buy 22 of these drones was being negotiated with the US.

Now, the deal is likely to include the armed variant and also the number of aircraft will increase as the Indian Navy wants a drone which can not only be used for surveillance but also to target and destroy hostile elements both at land and sea.

However, a potential stumbling block is US insistence that India sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) if it wants to operate advanced weapons supplied by it.

Under the agreement, the Americans will have the capability to interface with the UAVs in Indian service and jam their operations if required.

The high-level meeting between Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her US counterpart James Mattis in September will, among other issues, discuss India's procurement of drones and COMCASA.