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PM Modi And Joe Biden Announced Multi-Billion Dollar Deal For ‘Reaper’ Armed Drones; Is India’s Purchase Of Drones From The US, A Repeat Of The Rafale Deal?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden jointly announced a significant deal for India’s purchase of General Atomics MQ-9 “Reaper” armed drones. This move is said to bolster India’s national security and surveillance capabilities, not only in the Indian Ocean but also along the frontier with China. 

The MQ-9 “Reaper” is said to offer a substantial increase in payload capacity, carrying 500 per cent more than the earlier MQ-1 Predator, and boasts nine times the horsepower. It also provides long endurance, persistent surveillance, and strike capability for the warfighter.

The leaders expressed their satisfaction with India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). These drones will significantly enhance the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of India’s armed forces across various domains, according to a joint statement issued by both leaders.

modi, joe biden, drones

As part of the deal, San Diego-based General Atomics will establish a global maintenance and repair facility in India to support the country’s long-term goal of strengthening its indigenous defence capabilities.

India’s defence ministry approved the procurement of 30 MQ-9B Predator armed drones from General Atomics on June 15 under a government-to-government framework. The Defense Acquisition Council, chaired by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, cleared the purchase of these weaponized “hunter-killer” drones.

India and the US have been eager to finalize the 30 predator-armed drones deal, valued at over USD 3 billion. This acquisition will significantly enhance India’s surveillance capabilities along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the Indian Ocean.

The MQ-9 “Reaper” armed drone, known for its endurance of over 27 hours, can reach speeds of 240 knots true airspeed (KTAS) and operate at altitudes up to 50,000 feet. It has an impressive payload capacity of 3,850 pounds (1,746 kilograms), including 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms) of external stores, as specified by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI).

The MQ-9 “Reaper” represents a major leap forward in performance and reliability, building upon the experience gained from the company’s battle-proven Predator Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), according to GA-ASI. With this acquisition, India will significantly enhance its defense capabilities and strengthen its ability to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance operations. 

However, while it is true that the Indian defence forces are in need of drones, the real question here is if these drones could have been procured at a much cheaper cost than what is being paid to the United States.

Congress Alleges India is Paying Four Times More for Predator Drones

The Congress party has accused the Indian government of overpaying for the purchase of 31 Predator drones from the United States. The deal, which was celebrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden during the PM’s visit to the US, has drawn comparisons to the controversial Rafale aircraft purchase. The Congress party questioned the transparency and pricing of the deal, stating that India is paying more than other countries for the drones.

Drawing parallels with the Rafale deal, the Congress party questioned whether the procurement of Predator drones followed a similar pattern, with the Prime Minister unilaterally signing the deal without involving the Defense Ministry or the External Affairs Ministry. The party further criticized the high price tag, stating that India is paying a higher price than other countries for the drones, despite the absence of artificial intelligence integration.

The Congress party also raised concerns about the number of drones being purchased. According to the Indian Armed Forces, the requirement for Predator drones was reported to be 18, but the government is now purchasing 31 drones. The party questioned the rationale behind this increase in numbers.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is yet to respond to the allegations made by the Congress. However, the Press Information Bureau, the official communication agency of the Government of India, clarified that the price and terms of purchase for the drones are still subject to negotiation.

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera cited examples of other countries purchasing similar drones at lower prices to emphasize India’s allegedly inflated costs. The Congress highlighted that the US Air Force bought a superior version of the MQ-9 drone for $56.5 million per drone, while the UK Air Force purchased the MQ-9B drone for $12.5 million per drone in 2016. Spain and Germany also acquired these drones at significantly lower prices.

The Congress party argued that India already has an alternative in the form of the Rustom II Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, which is a domestically developed medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) drone. The party claimed that the Rustom II drone, designed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, can be developed at a fraction of the cost of the Predator drones from General Atomics USA.

Questioning the decision-making process, the Congress party asked why the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) did not approve the drone deal. They also raised concerns about the haste in brokering the deal and the preference for Predator drones over the indigenous Rustom series.

The allegations made by the Congress party highlight the need for transparency and accountability in defence procurement processes. As the controversy unfolds, further investigation and clarification are necessary to address the concerns raised regarding pricing, decision-making, and the selection of drones for India’s defence capabilities.

Comparison And Similarities Of Both Deals – Cost And Anil Ambani 

The Rafale deal had sparked controversy and raised several unanswered questions. The final agreement had then involved the purchase of 36 fighter jets without a provision for future purchases at similar prices, potentially leaving the air force in a precarious situation. The opposition, led by the Congress party, had even then raised concerns about the deal’s financial terms and alleged crony capitalism, while the government has refuted these accusations.

Therefore, to assess the merit of the opposition’s claims, it is necessary to examine whether the current government paid more for the Rafale jets compared to the price negotiated by its predecessor and whether Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence stood to benefit financially at the expense of the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

The previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had initially selected the Rafale jets for purchase, with plans to acquire 126 aircraft, including 108 to be manufactured by HAL in India. 

The ruling government argued that its final deal with Dassault Aviation for 36 off-the-shelf jets is not comparable to the UPA’s original negotiations. Additionally, the government denied favouring a private company over HAL, stating that Dassault Aviation independently chose to partner with Reliance Defence for its offset or export obligations.

One key point of contention was the price of the jets. The Congress party claims that the NDA government paid an inflated price of 7.87 billion euros (about Rs 59,000 crore), while the UPA had negotiated a lower price of Rs 570 crore per aircraft. However, internal calculations from the defence ministry showed that each Rafale jet, considering India-specific enhancements, is actually Rs 59 crore cheaper under the NDA deal compared to the UPA deal. These enhancements, such as high-altitude capabilities and advanced sensors, contribute significantly to the overall cost.

Regarding the allegation that Reliance Defence gained at HAL’s expense, the Congress argued that offsets worth 3.9 billion euros were awarded to Reliance Defence, despite its lack of experience in manufacturing jets or defence equipment. The UPA deal envisioned manufacturing the jets in India through HAL, but since this plan was cancelled, an offset clause was triggered, mandating French companies to invest 50% of the contract value in projects or work with Indian entities. 

Several Questions Remained Unanswered

The government claimed that the off-the-shelf purchase was chosen to ensure quicker delivery and strengthen the country’s defence. However, the 36 jets are scheduled to be delivered within 67 months, a timeframe similar to the UPA-negotiated deal, which involved acquiring 18 off-the-shelf jets. As no jets are being manufactured in India, the delivery time did not represent a significant saving.

Another question pertains to the absence of a bank guarantee in the Rafale deal. Unlike regular commercial purchases, where a winning company must furnish guarantees from an international bank, the French negotiated a mechanism in which their government would act as the guarantor. The issue of the absence of a bank guarantee raised concerns on the Indian side, and it is unclear how this matter was resolved or if sufficient safeguards were incorporated into the contract.

The decision to select the Rafale jets over the Eurofighter, which was deemed cheaper after detailed discussions, raised further questions. Despite the Indian Air Force’s selection of Rafale during the UPA regime, the Eurofighter was also found to meet the requirements. The NDA government, however, did not consider the Eurofighter in its decision and declined negotiations with Germany, which had offered reduced prices and expedited delivery. Critics argued that engaging with multiple vendors is preferred under defence procurement rules to encourage competitive pricing.

The biggest mystery was why the government settled for only 36 fighter jets instead of a larger quantity to meet the Indian Air Force’s requirements. The original figure of 126 aircraft was determined after extensive analysis to replace retiring Russian jets. The absence of a follow-on clause for future purchases at similar prices has put the air force in a challenging position. 

The Background To The Present

In 2016, India’s acquisition of Rafale fighter jets from France ignited a firestorm of debates and controversies. Critics questioned the transparency of the deal, alleging corruption and favoritism. The Rafale deal faced allegations of inflated costs, lack of competitive bidding, and insufficient technology transfer, leading to an ongoing political and legal battle in India.

Coming to the present, as India has announced its intention to purchase drones from the US, comparisons are being made to the Rafale deal; these comparisons arise from concerns regarding the transparency of the procurement process, potential political motives, and the possibility of cost escalations.

The Similarities

1. Controversy and allegations: Like the Rafale deal, the purchase of drones from the US has attracted controversy. Critics are putting forth the point that the procurement process lacks transparency and that the government has not adequately addressed concerns related to costs and technology transfer. Also, allegations of political favouritism and the absence of competitive bidding have again been raised.

2. Cost concerns: The Rafale deal faced significant criticism over allegations of inflated costs. Similarly, the procurement of drones from the US has led to questions about the pricing and whether it represents the best value for taxpayers’ money. The Critics assert that the absence of competitive bidding may result in higher costs for India.

3. Technology transfer: One of the key points of contention in the Rafale deal was the alleged lack of technology transfer to India. Similar concerns have emerged regarding the procurement of drones from the US, wherein critics argue that India should prioritize technology transfer to enhance its indigenous defence capabilities rather than relying solely on imported systems.

The Last Bit, As India moves forward with the purchase of drones, it is crucial for the government to address concerns regarding transparency, costs, and technology transfer. 

By implementing a robust mechanism for accountability and ensuring the best value for taxpayer money will help dispel doubts and strengthen public confidence in defence procurements. 

Thus, a thorough evaluation of the procurement process and ongoing scrutiny are necessary to determine whether this acquisition echoes the controversies surrounding the Rafale deal.


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