One of the swiftest and most unusual acquisitions of military platforms this year has been the induction of two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones acquired from the US and deployed in long-range missions over the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh, on December 3, confirmed that the navy had acquired two ‘pre-production model’ US-built MQ-9B SeaGuardians on lease and had been operating them over the past three weeks. “They have an endurance of 33 hours and we have been using them for sustained surveillance over large reaches of the Indian Ocean Region,” Admiral Singh said at his annual press conference ahead of Navy Day (December 4).
The drones were being maintained by personnel from US military firm General Atomics, the navy chief said. He sought to alleviate concerns raised by one of the other services on the security of the sensor data obtained by the leased drones. “The picture comes only to us,” Admiral Singh said. “We have safeguarded that part.”
The drones are based at INS Rajali, a naval airbase at Arakkonam, 80 km east of Chennai.
The lease option was concluded in less than two months. The Defence Acquisition Procedure unveiled by the defence ministry in September this year has a provision for leasing military equipment to bridge equipment shortfalls. “Leasing helps us greatly as it allows us to bridge equipment shortfalls without having to wait for lengthy procurements to be concluded,” a senior naval official said.
The SeaGuardian is called a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) platform as it can fly 40,000 feet above the sea and remain airborne for over 30 hours. Admiral Singh confirmed that the navy is the lead service in a tri-services proposal to acquire up to 30 SeaGuardian/ SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). The deal, first reported by INDIA TODAY, will see each of the three services acquiring 10 drones each for a total order size of Rs 22,000 crore.
The SeaGuardian, which will eventually be purchased, will allow the navy to perform broad area maritime surveillance at a fraction of the cost of the bigger US-built P-8I ‘Poseidon’— a militarised variant of the Boeing 737 passenger jet. General Atomics says the per hour operating costs of the SeaGuardian are only about 15 per cent of that of the P-8I—$5,000 (about Rs 3.7 lakh) per hour versus $35,000 (about Rs 26 lakh) per hour. The drones will also form part of an elaborate Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) grid that the navy is putting in place with three US-built platforms—shore-based SeaGuardians and P-8Is and shipborne MH-60R multirole helicopters. All three platforms ‘talk’ to each other and carry identical sonobuoys which, when dropped into the water, are capable of detecting enemy submarines. Contacts obtained by one of these platforms can be attacked by the other platforms using torpedoes and depth charges.
The navy’s present fleet of Israeli-built Heron Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs has a ceiling of 30,000 feet and an endurance of over 30 hours but lack the ability to be steered by satellite—which means they have to be deployed in line of sight of ground stations.