India is set to buy 22 American-made Guardian drones – unarmed naval variants of the Predator drone - after the US cleared their sale ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington for his maiden meeting with US President Donald Trump.
The news regarding the surveillance drones came from government sources on Thursday, first confirmed by PTI. The deal, which is estimated to be worth $2-3 billion, is being termed as a "game-changer" for bilateral ties between the two nations.
Modi's two-day visit to Washington begins on Sunday. According to reports, the decision on the drones was communicated to the Indian government and the manufacturer General Atomics by the US State Department on Thursday. It is seen as a key test of defence ties under the new Trump administration.
The deal would still require approval by Congress. California-based General Atomics, the maker of the Guardian drone sought by India, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
"We are trying to move it to the top of the agenda as a deliverable, this is something that can happen before all the other items," one official tracking the progress of the drone discussions in the run-up to the visit told Reuters.
The Indian Navy wants the unarmed surveillance drones to keep watch over the Indian Ocean. The deal would be the first such purchase by a country that is not a member of the NATO alliance.
India, a big buyer of US arms that was recently named by Washington as a major defence ally, wants to protect its 7,500- km coastline as Beijing expands its maritime trade routes and Chinese submarines are increasingly present in regional waters.
But, sources tracking the discussions say the US State Department has been concerned about the potential de-stabilising impact of introducing high-tech drones into South Asia, where tensions are simmering between India and Pakistan, particularly over Kashmir.
Other strains have emerged, with the United States vexed by a growing bilateral trade deficit and Trump accusing New Delhi of negotiating unscrupulously at the Paris climate talks to walk away with billions in aid. US officials expect a relatively low-key visit by Modi, without the fanfare of some of his previous trips to the United States, and one geared to giving the Indian leader the chance to get to know Trump personally and to show that he is doing so.
While the Guardian drones that India will get are unarmed, the Indian military had originally asked for missile-firing Predator Avenger craft, a request turned down by the Obama administration.