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US-India armed drones deal clears Congress block

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THE US State Department has approved the potential sale of 31 armed MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones, related missiles and equipment to India for nearly $4 billion (£3.17bn), the Pentagon said last Thursday (1), years after the two countries started discussing a deal.

India has long expressed interest in buying large, armed drones from the United States, but bureaucratic stumbling blocks hampered a hoped-for deal. Talks over an armed version for India date back to 2018, while discussions over unarmed versions date back even further.

Last Thursday’s approval by the State Department does not mean the deal is a sure thing, but it demonstrates progress as the US continues a campaign to coax India away from buying Russian military equipment. “The proposed sale will improve India’s capability to meet current and future threats by enabling unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation,” a State Department statement said.

“India has demonstrated a commitment to modernising its military and will have no difficulty absorbing these articles and services into its armed forces.”

Indian officials had discussed the drones during a state visit by prime minister Narendra Modi last year at the invitation of president Joe Biden, following Indian skirmishes both with China and Pakistan.

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The State Department nod signals that the deal likely has cleared one stumbling block, approval by leaders of US congressional committees.

While India had long enjoyed wide support in the US Congress, the mega-deal faced a holdup in Congress after US prosecutors alleged a plot to kill a Sikh separatist leader with US citizenship in New York. Most explosively, the Justice Department alleged that an Indian government official directed the plan remotely.

India promised to look into the claim, in a more measured response than the government’s furious response when Canada earlier alleged involvement by New Delhi in the killing of a Sikh separatist near Vancouver.

But some US lawmakers questioned whether both Modi and the Biden administration were taking the allegations seriously enough – and put off their informal greenlighting of the sale.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he had ended his “hold” on the agreement now that Biden’s administration had agreed to fully investigate an Indian assassination plot on US soil.

“The (Biden) administration has demanded that there be investigation and accountability in regards to the plot here in the United States, and that there is accountability within India against these types of activities,” Cardin told reporters.

Congress still has 30 days in which it can block the sale, although most observers expect it to go through.

“The notification gets the sale back on track, but it could still encounter some choppy seas in Congress. The assassination allegations against India continue to cast a shadow over US-India relations,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute.

“Strategic imperatives tend to carry the day in this partnership, and that will likely ensure the sale eventually goes through, but one can’t rule out the possibility of some hiccups during the finalisation process,” Kugelman said.

In New Delhi, foreign ministry spokesman Randhir Jaiswal told reporters the US was following its “internal processes” on the sale, declining further comment.

The Sea Guardians can monitor the seas as well as submarines and can remain airborne for 35 hours at a time and fire Hellfire missiles and carry around 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of bombs.

Currently, India is leasing a few MQ-9Bs as part of an intelligence-gathering operation. The Indian Navy has already been operating two Predator drones on lease through which it has monitored Arabian Sea to protect ships from attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Somali pirates.

The deal with the US includes sophisticated communications and surveillance equipment, 170 AGM-114R Hellfire missiles and 310 Laser Small Diameter Bombs, a precision glide bomb. (Agencies)

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