US Freezes $3 Billion MQ-9A Drone Deal with India Amidst Assassination Conspiracy Investigation

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By DT News Desk

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MQ-9A Drone Deal: In a startling move, the United States government has halted the delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India, demanding a “meaningful investigation” into the conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Khalistan activist with dual US and Canadian citizenship, accused of terrorism by India.

Why US Freezes $3 Billion MQ-9A Drone Deal with India
US Freezes $3 Billion MQ-9A Drone Deal with India Amidst Assassination Conspiracy Investigation

Delay in MQ-9A Drone Deal Approval

The $3 billion purchase, including 15 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy and eight Sky Guardian drones each for the Indian Air Force and Army, is on hold. Additionally, a proposal to acquire six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft has also been affected, meant to supplement the Indian Navy’s existing fleet of 12 P-8I Poseidon aircraft.

Political Timing and Intrigue

Ironically, internal approval for the stalled drone procurement was granted by the Indian Ministry of Defence in June 2023, just a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington. Simultaneously, the conspiracy to assassinate Pannun, allegedly orchestrated by an Indian security official named CC1, gained momentum, according to a federal indictment made public last November.

Legislative Freeze and Concerns

The purchase is now entangled in the US Congress due to widespread anger over the attempt to assassinate Pannun. US representatives have frozen the legislative process required to proceed with the sale, citing concerns among Indian-American lawmakers about the fallout from the indictment of Nikhil Gupta, charged with conspiring to kill Pannun.

Congressional Response and Warning

Five US Congress members of Indian origin, briefed on the federal indictment by the Biden administration, issued a joint statement in December, emphasizing the need for India to conduct a thorough investigation and hold those responsible accountable. They warned of “significant damage” to the US-India partnership if swift action is not taken.

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Fallout and Diplomatic Tensions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi downplayed the impact on Indo-US ties, stating in an interview to the Financial Times that there is strong bipartisan support for strengthening the relationship. However, the Poseidon aircraft and Sea Guardian drones, designed to work together in monitoring the Indian Ocean, are crucial for responding to potential threats to international trade routes.

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Versatile Sea Guardian Drone Specifications

The Sea Guardian drone, with an endurance of over 27 hours, a speed of 240 knots, an operating ceiling of 50,000 feet, and a payload capacity of 1,746 kilograms, plays a pivotal role in maritime surveillance. Powered by the Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine, it continues to evolve to meet emerging operational needs.

Conclusion and Diplomatic Implications

As India commits to a full investigation of the Pannun affair, the Capitol Hill will closely scrutinize the measures taken. The drone deal freeze underscores the delicate diplomatic balance between the two nations, raising questions about the future trajectory of their strategic partnership.

MQ-9 Reaper Drones: Features

MQ-9 drones, with an impressive endurance exceeding 27 hours and an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet, boast a wingspan of over 22 meters. Designed for multi-role operations, the MQ-9 Reaper is remotely piloted and equipped with diverse mission payloads, including Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR), Lynx multi-mode Radar, and Electronic Support Measures (ESM). The ‘M’ denotes its multi-role capabilities, ‘Q’ signifies a remotely piloted aircraft system, and ‘9’ marks it as the ninth in the series.

The maritime variant, SeaGuardian, and its counterpart, SkyGuardian, are integral to India’s surveillance capabilities. The Indian Navy has been operating SeaGuardian drones on lease since September 2020, enhancing vigilance along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). With a focus on Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR), the MQ-9 Reapers augment India’s defense capabilities. The long-endurance drones are adept at strike operations, providing a unique capability for reconnaissance against high-value targets. Indian military planners envision their role in remote-controlled operations, including surgical strikes in sensitive areas.

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The global prevalence of MQ-9 Reapers includes deployment by the US Air Force, Department of Homeland Security, NASA, the UK’s Royal Air Force, the Italian Air Force, the French Air Force, and the Spanish Air Force. Japan recently inducted MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones.

While these drones offer unparalleled capabilities, incidents like the Russian Su-27’s interference with an MQ-9 Reaper over the Black Sea underscore challenges. Despite such challenges, the strategic importance of MQ-9 Reapers in modern warfare is evident, with their role in high-profile incidents such as the US drone strike that targeted Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020.

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