Lethal or life-saving? Unpacking the capabilities of India's MQ-9B drones

The United States has approved the sale of 31 MQ-9B drones to India. Having been extensively utilized in the Middle East by the US military to neutralize Islamic State targets, the Predator drone possesses a number of lethal capabilities.

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On Thursday, six years after India first expressed interest in acquiring the Predator drone, the United States approved the sale of 31 of the UAVs to India in a deal worth an estimated $3.99 billion. Following clearance by the US Congress, a formal contract will be signed in the coming months.

Out of the 31 drones, the Navy will receive 15 Sea Guardian drones, the naval version of the Predator. The Air Force and Army will each get eight Sky Guardian drones. However, India is not new to operating 'hunter-killer' drones. During the height of the border standoff with China in eastern Ladakh in 2020, India leased two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from the US for one year to monitor Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean region. The lease was eventually renewed.

Capabilities of MQ-9B

With drones in their arsenal, Indian forces will be able to conduct remote controlled operations against terrorist hideouts. Aside from its speed, range and weaponry, the MQ-9B is the most sought-after drone due to its ability to fly silently. This stealth capability distinguishes it from competitors, allowing it to get as close as 250 metres to a target without detection.

The drone can fly at 50,000 feet, higher than a commercial airliner, with a top speed of 275 mph (442 km/h). It is also designed for long endurance missions in any conditions, carrying up to 1,700 kg of payload including four missiles and 450 kg of bombs, and staying aloft for up to 35 hours without refueling.

MQ-9B drones

As well as air-to-air missiles, the drone can carry air-to-ground missiles, adding to its versatility. With its long-range sensors, multi-mode communications and precision weapons, the US uses Predator drones for surveillance, information gathering and strikes.

The Sea Guardian, the naval version, has a 360-degree maritime surface search radar and sonobuoy monitoring for anti-surface and anti-submarine operations. The drone system is also cost-effective - General Atomics says the MQ-9B can match 80% of manned aircraft capability for around 20% less per flight hour.