Special Report: Watchers of the Subcontinent – GUARDIANS OF THE SUBCONTINENT


The New Delhi security establishment can see further thanks to two cross-shaped Sea Guardian drones floating in the sky thousands of feet above the Indian Ocean. These keen aerial eyes have been sending clear images of the Chinese and Pakistani warships operating in the Indian peninsula for the past nine months without the blink of an eye, right at the same time on a video screen in the War Room. Naval in New Delhi.

The MQ-9B Sea Guardian drone was leased by the Indian Navy last year from the American company General Atomics. The two satellite-powered drones took off from the Arakkonam Naval Air Base, 77 km west of Chennai, and spent more than 5,000 hours averaging more than 12 hours a day over the vast belt from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca. the flight.

Its 20-meter wingspan, which is as wide as a cricket field, has nine places to store weapons, called ‘hard points’, from which it can carry two tons of electronics and weapons. The electro-optical / infrared sensor that captures the finest details can take long-distance photos and videos.

A synthetic aperture radar (SAR) can capture geographic features. A maritime patrol radar can detect markings on the surface of the sea. Reverse or reverse SAR can detect, photograph and classify objects over 300 km away.

These drones can carry a sonobuoy (floating voice detection device) to launch the ocean and chase and hunt submarines with torpedoes, fire anti-ship missiles at warships, and move with laser-guided missiles. They can attack trucks or launch missiles inside a building window.

Sea Guardian also has Big Data analysis algorithms in its ground control stations, which can analyze large amounts of raw data. “It’s a game changer,” says a senior military officer. With this, the Indian armed forces are entering a new era of drone warfare.

This new era of drone warfare is believed to have started last year. Azerbaijani Turkish-made combat drones destroyed Armenian tanks, missiles and vehicles during a 44-day confrontation that erupted in September 2020 in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area. This was the first war between the two countries in which drones played a decisive role.

The Indian Armed Forces are to acquire 30 Sea Guardian remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or remotely operated aircraft systems. The matter of its acquisition will soon be submitted to the Defense Procurement Council (DAC). They are also called long-duration high altitude drones (HALE or HALE) because they operate at altitudes above 40,000 feet, stay in the air for more than 40 hours, and exceed 10,000 km. Equipped with distance capability.

The Navy, Air Force and Army will get 10 to 10 drones. This deal worth more than $ 3 billion (Rs 22,500 crore) will be one of India’s largest defense deals with the US This will be the second largest deal after the $ 4 billion (Rs 30,000 crore) for 10 C-17 Globemaster-III transport aircraft in 2011.

Chinese provocation
The Guardian will be the first armed drone operated by the Indian Armed Forces. Currently, the forces only have ‘camp drones’ that penetrate the target. For the past three years, there has been an intense discussion in the South Block about the purchase to be made. But the need to buy them was immediately felt after May 2020, when there was a clash with China on the border in eastern Ladakh.

Already fighting on the 3,323 km long border with Pakistan, fear of war with China drove the Indian armed forces from their resting place. Now he had to pay attention to the longest, maritime border with China. A senior army official says that after May last year, defense acquisitions are being made taking into account the deployment of surveillance and reconnaissance systems on the northern and eastern borders.

Last year, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed two divisions in eastern Ladakh to support small raids along the Royal Line of Control (LAC) from behind, at the time when the Indian armed forces began to monitor them. A handful of Israeli-made ‘Heron’ drones weren’t capable enough to keep an eye on floating targets continuously.

To do this, the Army had to use the Navy’s P-8I Pasiden aircraft for a different purpose, whose main function is to pursue submarines. He himself gave detailed photographs of the Chinese gathering on the Himalayan border.

Beijing’s combat mentality and three decades of disregard for rules and regulations have made the 3,448-kilometer-long LAC a volatile area. There is a possibility of further infiltration in this. This is where the importance of RPAS increases, equipped with the ability to continuously monitor. The Army and Air Force want them for battlefield information, so they can monitor military gatherings in LAC day and night and in any weather and find targets.

At the same time, the enemy can make precise hits within the area in such a way that there is no danger of damaging the pilot. The Navy needs this to be able to keep an eye on the many ‘choke points’ around that Indonesian island group, beyond which the PLA can rapidly deploy warships and submarines in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

The Guardian uses a shared data link to work with the US-made P-8I ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) aircraft and the MH-60 Romeo helicopter. Together, the trio becomes a deadly trio chasing submarines in the IOR.

Why Sea Guardian?
The only indication of a Sea Guardian purchase came from a photograph in Washington. In September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Dr. Vivek Lal, CEO of General Atomics in Washington. The conversation was short and cordial. Lal, 52, a PIO (Person of Indian Origin) and aeronautical engineer, has been the chief of operations for India at two of America’s largest defense firms, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As a director of Boeing Defense India, he had arranged the purchase of naval patrol and military cargo aircraft worth more than $ 5 billion (Rs 37,500 crore).

It is unclear what led to the Modi talks, but it is seen as the clearest indication of India’s eagerness to acquire The Guardian. India and the US are negotiating defense deals worth about $ 10 billion (Rs 75,000 crore). The Guardian’s $ 3 billion deal will be the first with the United States since President Joe Biden took office this year.

These drones are the product of two decades of American research and development in RPAS technology. It has been the backbone of the two-decade (2001-2021) global war on terrorism led by the United States, in which 91,340 drone strikes were carried out, many of them to kill terrorist leaders.

versatile weapon in the sky

The newest forms of drones fire precision guided missiles. India became eligible for RPAS when it was included in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016. Guards are ‘Category 1’ defense items that are sold only to countries that have signed the MTCR. The Donald Trump administration had approved the sale of Guardian to India in 2017.

The Air Force objected to the deal because of cost. Each drone cost more than Rs 1000 crore, or roughly the equivalent of the cost of two Russian Su-30 MKI heavy combat drones manufactured by licensed Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Technology transfer was also not included in the deal.

The Defense Ministry found this deal against the government’s Make in India policy in which the government wants defense manufacturers to invest in technology within the country. He advocated a “buy and build” project in favor of the Israeli heron. The Armed Forces successfully challenged this by saying that the Guardian has twice the capacity of the Heron in terms of air handling, cargo and distance.

This is the first joint agreement for the three services, with the Navy at the forefront. Officials say they got about a 50 percent reduction in original cost by negotiating a common package of training, maintenance and base construction across the three services. In this way, he avoided a repeat of what happened when he bought the Heron drone from Israel in the early 2000s.

The three armies then spoke separately with Israel and purchased identical drones at different prices, with no logistics or shared base. When the Israeli drones arrived, they could not be controlled from the ground stations of other armies and their purpose of being able to work with each other was not fulfilled.

To close the technology transfer gap in the agreement, General Atomics agreed to establish comprehensive maintenance, repair and testing (MRO) centers in India with the capacity to service 50 MQ-9 drones per year. With this, India will also be able to service the MQ-9 drones sold to other Asian countries such as Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates.

DRDO’s Rustom-2 (Defense Research and Development Organization) has so far performed eight hours of flights at more than 16,000 altitudes. This could be India’s small step in gaining the capability of indigenous combat drones.

The Defense Ministry advocated “buy and make” in favor of the Israeli heron. But law enforcement successfully challenged it, saying the Guardian has twice the capacity of the Heron in terms of air handling, weight and distance.


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