As Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first meeting with US president Donald Trump inches closer, the US is expected to approve India's purchase of 22 unarmed drones. While the deal still requires approval by the US Congress, the approval from the executive branch is seen as a big boost to defence ties between the two countries. India-US relations had flourished under former president Barack Obama but have drifted under Trump, who has courted Asian rival China as he seeks Beijing's help to contain North Korea's nuclear programme.
The Indian Navy wants the unarmed surveillance drones to keep watch over the Indian Ocean. The deal would be the first such purchase by a country that is not a member of the NATO alliance.
The Guardian drone
The Guardian Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) which India is buying is manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. It is the naval variant of the Predator B drone or to call it by its proper name, the MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper was the United States Air Force's first hunter-killer UAV. Compared to the old MQ-1 Predator, it is larger and more powerful as it has a 900-horsepower turbo-prop engine, compared to the 119-horsepower Predator engine. It flies at almost three times the Predator's cruise speed.
The Reaper has been acquired by the US Air Force, US Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force and the Spanish Air Force among others.
The Reaper is based on the original Predator drone which interestingly was designed by a Iraqi-born Jew, Abraham Karem who is considered the founding father of UAV (drone) technology.
To be clear India is not getting the Reaper, which is an armed aircraft. Instead India is buying the unarmed Guardian Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) which was developed by the US Office of Air and Marine (OAM) in partnership with the US Coast Guard. The Guardian has been modified from a standard Reaper with structural, avionic and communication enhancements and an added Raytheon SeaVue Marine Search Radar. Its Electro-optical/Infrared Sensor is optimized for maritime operations.
As far as the numbers go, it has a wingspan of 20 metres and is powered by the Honeywell TPE331-10 powerplant. With a fuel capacity of 1769 kilogrammes, it can attain a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 metres) and can cruise for a maximum of 27 hours.
The remotely piloted Guardian allows for missions to be conducted safely in areas that are difficult to access or otherwise considered too high-risk for manned aircraft. This risk-reducing capability makes it critical to personnel safety and mission success. It can also fly in a completely autonomous mode.
Drones or 'remotely piloted aircraft'?
Incidentally, the operators of the drones prefer to use "remotely piloted aircraft" when discussing these types of aircrafts because it better reflects the presence of a human operator, who sits at a computer control panel thousands of miles away. This change in nomenclature is significant because as a new generation of pilots are being recruited who might spend less time inside a jet plane. As such, the authorities want the world to know that humans have positive control over these vehicles.
The United States has embraced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in a big way as it is now training more pilots for advanced UAVs than for any other single weapons system. As India builds up it's drone capacity, it is certainly taking a step to the future which will have lesser human casualties and more strategic gains in disputed areas.
With inputs from Reuters
Updated Date: Jun 23, 2017 12:14:06 IST