India has taken a step towards improving its maritime domain awareness and security capabilities with the US State Department approving a potential Foreign Military Sales package for the MQ-9B Sky Guardian Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS).
The Defense Security and Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced on 1 February that approval had been given to India’s request to buy 31 General Atomics MQ-9B Sky Guardians for an estimated total of US$3.99 billion (A$6.15 billion).
India’s request also included an extensive package of onboard systems, ordnance and other support, including 170 AGM-114R Hellfire air-to-surface missiles, 310 GBU-39B/B Laser Small Diameter Bombs (LSDB), 35 L3 Rio Grande Communications Intelligence Sensor Suites. and 161 Embedded Global Positioning & Inertial Navigation Systems (EGIs).
More interesting was India’s request for the Leonardo SeaSpray Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar in place of the incumbent RTX SeaVue mechanically scanned radar, making the South Asian country the first operator to use the radar on its MQ-9s.
The DSCA notification stated that 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.”
India is facing a mounting maritime security challenge in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, with a growing Chinese naval presence in the former and having been caught up in the ongoing shipping crisis in the Red Sea and Middle East, with ships having been attacked by suspected Iranian made one-way attack drones off its shores.
The MQ-9B Sky Guardian is developed to be compliant with European flight regulations in an effort to secure more sales in European countries. The UAS aircraft meets NATO STANAG 4671 airworthiness requirements with lightning protection, different composite materials, and sense and avoid technology, which allows it to operate over European airspace.
The MQ-9B’s performance changes include a wingspan of 24 metres (79 feet) that has winglets and enough fuel that enable it to stay aloft for up to 40 hours at 50,000 ft (15,000 m). It is also equipped with include High Definition EO/IR Full Motion Video sensor, De/Anti-Icing System, Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), and Automatic Take-Off & Land capability.
The UAS also includes a completely redesigned & modernised integrated ground control station with four crew stations.
Australia had previously selected the MQ-9B for the RAAF's Project AIR 7003 MALE armed remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) requirement, only for the Morrison government to cancel the planned acquisition in March 2022.