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India may go for only Naval UAVs from US, IAF backs out

India is likely to buy only naval surveillance drones from the United States, scaling back its plans after holding talks on acquiring armed Predator drones under the foreign military sales route.

The two sides have been discussing a $2 billion deal for unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) but a lack of interest from the Indian Air Force and commitment to an indigenous programme by the Indian Army are likely to come in the way, people aware of the matter told ET on condition of anonymity.

The Indian Navy has an interest in acquiring US-made surveillance drones as it needs more assets for maritime domain awareness in the region, said the people. However, this requirement is for a long endurance, unarmed drone that can work in coordination with other surveillance platforms like the Boeing P8I aircraft, they said.

The navy is likely to go ahead with a limited purchase option of 10 Sea Guardian drones that are interoperable with other US assets in the region. The activation of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) will help the navy exploit the platforms for joint surveillance and intelligence sharing.

Officials said the air force has not been keen on an offer of 10 armed Predator or Avenger drones from the US as it finds their cost prohibitive and does not see them useful in the context of its operational role in the region.

An armed drone would have been of little help in an operation like the Balakot air strikes, said an expert, since the relatively low speed aircraft would have given the enemy enough warning to launched counter measures. Besides, drones are easy to shoot down in enemy airspace with anti-aircraft systems and the air force feels that resources could be better utilised by shoring up fighter jet strength in the fleet.

“These drones cost almost as much as a Rafale fighter jet and are not equipped to operate in a contested air space scenario like the one we are in,” said an official.

The air force is also committed to a project with Israel to upgrade and weaponise the Heron drones that are already in service. Similarly, there has not been keen interest by the army on a proposal to acquire 10 of the armed drones as it is committed to an indigenous project by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). The army has pledged to procure over 80 of the Rustom 2 drones that are under development and are being weaponised by the DRDO.

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