An internal meeting and a subsequent document it would generate are holding up talks between New Delhi and Washington for the purchase of US-made armed drones, two people familiar with the matter said.
The Biden administration is pushing Indian officials to cut through the red tape and advance the deal ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit later this month.
India has long expressed interest in buying large armed drones from the United States and is in talks to purchase dozens of MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones that could be worth a total of $2-3 billion.
Breaking India’s bureaucratic logjam hinges on an internal meeting to generate an “Acceptance of Necessity” document. The document is an Indian precursor to a formal “Letter of Request” which kicks off the foreign military sale process.
As of Tuesday, the sources did not know if New Delhi had generated the necessary internal document.
“That’s gonna be a decision that the government of India needs to make,” a senior Biden administration official said. “We think it would be good for them to go through with the purchase of MQ-9s. But those decisions are sort of more in the hands of India than they are of us.”
The topic was expected to be on the agenda as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, arrived in New Delhi on Tuesday to finalise preparations ahead of Modi’s visit.
US pressing Indian officials
As of last week, India’s defence ministry had still not made up its mind about the number of drones it wants to buy, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Earlier, the number was pegged at 30, but that was later revised to 24, then cut further to 18 last month. Sources cautioned that none of the numbers were final.
India is also seeking components of the equipment to be domestically manufactured, something that could complicate any deal.
However, since the date for Modi’s US visit was fixed, the State Department, Pentagon and White House have asked India to be able to “show” progress on the deal, two sources said.
US negotiators are counting on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s White House visit on June 22 to break the logjam.
New Delhi, which often prizes its non-alignment in conflicts between great powers abroad, has frustrated Washington by maintaining some defence and economic ties with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden has made deepening ties with India a cornerstone of his policy to counter China’s growing influence, placing special attention this year on collaboration between the world’s two largest democracies on advanced military technologies, despite their lack of a formal security alliance.
Modi and Biden are expected to discuss co-production of munitions and ground vehicles, like armored personnel carriers, while Modi is in Washington, the sources said.
The Quad grouping of countries – the United States, India, Australia and Japan – all operate, or have operated, the MQ-9B SeaGuardian made by General Atomics.
The US, Japan and Taiwan have agreed to share real-time data from reconnaissance drones to improve military coordination and prepare for a potential Chinese invasion, according to a report by the Financial Times.
It said Taipei is set to receive four MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones under a $600-million deal signed during the Trump administration.
Currently, India is leasing MQ-9Bs as part of an intelligence-gathering operation.
- Reuters, with additional editing by Vishakha Saxena