India is vying to become one of the first countries to import armed Predator Avenger drones from the U.S., a move that would allow it to remotely drop a bomb on any square inch of Pakistan.
The unmanned aircraft manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. are sleek, fast, killing machines. From New Delhi they could hunt militants across Pakistan, and become a strategic consideration in border standoffs with China.
If approved, the drones would be another sign of the growing defense ties between Washington and New Delhi: India was the second-largest buyer of U.S. arms in 2014, up from virtually nothing five years ago. The Avengers also represent a small but significant tilt in the strategic dynamics of a region with three nuclear powers and about 40 percent of the world’s population.
"It’s actually quite amazing how quickly the Indian-U.S. relations have developed," said Siemon Wezeman, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a group that monitors arms transfers. “Within a few years India has embraced U.S. weapons” and America is now “supplying India with very advanced military technology," he said.
On Sept. 22, the U.S. in a statement backed India’s membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, a prerequisite for buying the drones. Two days later, India’s Air Force sent a letter to San Diego-based General Atomics saying it wanted to purchase the Avenger, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg. Air Force officials declined to comment on the letter.
That suggestion alone is enough to raise tensions between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars in the past and are home to the world’s fastest growing nuclear arsenals since 2010. The Avengers can fly for 18 hours, carry 3,500 pounds of munitions and reach an altitude of 50,000 feet.
“The drones, which can reach anywhere in Pakistan, obviously can create, can heighten the tensions, and increase the risk of a conflagration," said Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general and an Islamabad-based defense analyst.
India’s drone inventory comprises mostly surveillance-only models made by Israel. With armed drones, India could be more likely to strike in Pakistan to retaliate after terrorist attacks that New Delhi’s leaders pin on their neighbor -- something they’ve avoided doing with fighter jets that carry the risk of downed pilots.
Contested air space
"Once people across know that they can be struck from the air without India thinking too much that there would be a pilot who may get shot down, that sends a deterrent," said Manmohan Bahadur, a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi and retired air vice marshal of the Indian Air Force.
Bahadur stressed that such drones would not "be used as a free for all" -- “This border is a contested air space that you’re talking about."
Pakistan has at least one drone series capable of carrying out strikes. They are thought to be developed by China and more limited in range and payload than the Avenger.
In the opposite direction, India has had a series of standoffs with China. The more advanced capability of the Chinese military to respond to any strikes, though, makes the drone’s presence more of a deterrent to both sides to tamp down on disputes.
Vivek Lall, General Atomics’s chief executive of U.S. and International Strategic Development, said in an October telephone interview that his company is “aware of India’s interest in Predator-series" drones.
Any sale faces a number of hurdles. Before India could acquire the drones, it must become a member of the Missile Technology group of 34 nations that have common rules for exporting weapons systems. The bloc’s annual meeting concluded on Oct. 9 without India being named a member.
U.S. officials “remain steadfast" in supporting India’s membership, Helaena White, a State Department spokeswoman, said on Nov. 5. As to India buying the Avenger, White said "I can’t speculate on a hypothetical request."
In a November phone interview, Lall said: “We look forward to working with the U.S. and Indian governments to support their defense requirements."
The clearance for such a sale wouldn’t come quickly. Once India is a member of the group, the State Department would need to approve the sale and then inform the U.S. Congress, which reviews arms transfers.
A State Department policy issued this year on selling armed drones to allies underlined the sensitivity of such sales. It required that purchasers use the systems in accordance with international law.
A proposed sale to Italy of missiles and bombs for another variant of armed predator drones showed the potential hurdles. A U.S. Department of Defense agency involved in the deal noted this month that “this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region."
It’s boilerplate language that becomes considerably more complicated when it comes to the India-Pakistan border.