India’s Strategic Move to Acquire MQ-9B Sea Guardian Drones Transforms Naval Warfare Dynamics in the Region.
New Delhi, September 22, 2023 – In a significant strategic move, India has inked an agreement with the United States to acquire 31 MQ-9B Sea Guardian high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at a cost of $3.07 billion. This landmark deal is set to reshape the Indian Navy’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, with 15 of these cutting-edge UAVs earmarked for the navy. Upon their induction, India will become the world’s second nation, following the United States, to operate an airborne anti-submarine triad. This acquisition will empower India to more effectively detect and neutralize Pakistan’s conventional attack submarines.
The MQ-9B Sea Guardian, manufactured by General Atomics, is a state-of-the-art UAV known for its versatility. However, what sets it apart is its unparalleled ability to track and eliminate enemy submarines. It holds the distinction of being the world’s only fixed-wing UAV equipped to carry sonobuoys, specialized marine devices used in anti-submarine operations. With four wing stations capable of accommodating 4 SDS pods, it can carry either 40 ‘A’ size or 80 ‘G’ size sonobuoys.
The MQ-9B Sea Guardian can process data from approximately 32 sonobuoys, allowing it to detect, classify, and track underwater targets. This capability was demonstrated during the 2021 Integrated Battle Problem exercise conducted by the U.S. Navy. It offers naval commanders a cost-effective and standalone solution, serving as a potent alternative to manned maritime patrol aircraft.
Additionally, the MQ-9B boasts an impressive endurance capability, exceeding that of manned maritime aircraft and helicopters by a significant margin, with over 30 hours of operational time. This endurance makes it an ideal candidate for locating and engaging enemy submarines in vast oceanic expanses, a task that often demands prolonged surveillance. Furthermore, its operational cost, at $5,000 per hour, is substantially lower than the $35,000 per hour cost associated with the P-8, making it a cost-efficient platform. The MQ-9B boasts an operational range of over 5,000 nautical miles and can reach altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet. It is also equipped with an integrated tactical data link system for real-time communication with other platforms.
Upon formal induction into the Indian Navy’s fleet, it will join the ranks of the world’s first active airborne anti-submarine triad, consisting of maritime patrol aircraft, versatile helicopters, and long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. This triad comprises the P-8 Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft, MQ-9B Sea Guardian, and MH-60R helicopters with ASW capabilities. Both the P-8 and MH-60R share the MQ-9B’s ability to locate and track enemy submarines. A P-8 on an ASW mission can carry up to 129 A-type sonobuoys or a combination of sonobuoys and torpedoes, with 12 aircraft already in service with India’s naval forces. Similarly, the MH-60R can carry both types of payloads, albeit in smaller quantities than the P-8. India has already ordered 24 MH-60R helicopters in a $2.6 billion deal, with all expected to be operational within the next two years.
The introduction of the MQ-9B will undoubtedly bolster the Indian Navy’s search and tracking capabilities, enabling precise location and engagement of Pakistan’s submarines. This will be particularly advantageous due to its interoperability with existing anti-submarine platforms such as the P-8 and MH-60. In the absence of the latter, the MQ-9B can assume control of ASW missions, extending coverage into international waters and detecting Pakistani submarines on the high seas.
Furthermore, its multi-domain mission capability, which includes mission control and coordination with other platforms, makes it a formidable asset. Unlike the P-8 and MH-60, which have limited mission durations and require refueling, the unmanned MQ-9B can remain airborne for over a day and a half while surveilling targeted areas.
The MQ-9B’s impending induction will be a game-changer, potentially challenging the offensive operations of Pakistan’s Navy. Its extended surveillance capabilities and interoperability make it a potent threat. India’s acquisition of additional MQ-9B drones will further amplify its advantage. To counter this new threat, Pakistan’s Navy must strengthen its naval air arm with modern air superiority aircraft. Additionally, reducing the acoustic signature of its platforms, especially the eight new Yuan-class submarines from China, is imperative for successful submarine operations.
In conclusion, India’s acquisition of the MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones signals a paradigm shift in naval warfare dynamics in the region. It equips India with enhanced capabilities for tracking and neutralizing submarines, placing it in a strategically advantageous position.