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With Eye On Neighbors, India Mulls Buying U.S. Drones

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone.
A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned drone.

India is currently in talks with the United States about a possible purchase of 40 Predator surveillance drones in a move that is likely to fluster neighboring Pakistan.

The step is a bid to equip its military with further unmanned technologies to source intelligence and add to its firepower along India’s borders with Pakistan and China.

India is already using Israeli surveillance drones to patrol the mountains of Kashmir, a region disputed by India and Pakistan and the cause of two of their three wars.

New Dehli has sought to deepen its defense ties with the United States, which views India as a counterweight to China in the region. According to military officials, India asked Washington for the Predator series of unmanned planes, built by the privately held General Atomics.

"We are aware of Predator interest from the Indian Navy. However, it is a government-to-government discussion," said Vivek Lall, chief executive of U.S. and International Strategic Development at San Diego-based General Atomics.

In late 2015, the U.S. government cleared General Atomics’ proposal to market the unarmed Predator XP in India. A delivery time frame was not clear.

The Indian Navy says its wants them for surveillance in the Indian Ocean, where the pilotless aircraft can remain airborne for 35 hours, at a time when the Chinese Navy is expanding ship and submarine patrols in the region.

Previous moves by India to strengthen its defense capabilities have elicited a sharp response from Islamabad, which fears falling farther behind their bigger rival in the arms race.

India's air force is also hoping to acquire around 100 armed Predator C Avenger aircraft, which the United States has used to carry out strikes against Islamist militants in Pakistan's northwest and neighboring Afghanistan.

But officials say that India would require clearance from the Missile Technology Control Regime group of 34 nations as well as approval from U.S. Congress before any transfer of lethal Predators could happen.

The push for the drones comes as U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter was headed to India for talks to cement military collaboration in the final months of the Obama administration.

Indian military officials said they expected the request for the armed aircraft to figure into Carter's talks with his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar. The two agreed on the shared use of military bases, logistics, and defense technology.

Retired air vice marshal Manmohan Bahadur said the proposed acquisition of armed Predators would give the military the ability to carry out cross-border strikes, or even attack targets lying deeper inside a neighboring country.

"But at the end of the day, it's a political decision. It's one thing to lob artillery shells, It’s another to use air power; that's an escalation," he said.

Despite blaming militant groups based there for orchestrating attacks on Indian soil, including the 2008 Mumbai attack, India has not made any moves against Pakistan partly out of fear it would spark a larger conflict.

But experts say a drone strike could be an option with less risk.

Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani security analyst, said Islamabad would object to such a transfer. Islamabad would probably just try to shoot them down, he said, rendering them without much effect. "There is obviously going to be push-back from Pakistan, because if it (the drone) does get through in some way or other it enhances Indian capability," he said.

With reporting by Reuters