US-India drone deal approved after ‘painstaking discussions’ on Pannun foiled murder case: Senator

US, India drone deal, MQ-9B drones
Image Source : REUTERS US MQ-9 drone

US-India drone deal: US Senator Ben Cardin, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the $3.9 billion drone deal with India was approved after “painstaking discussions” with President Joe Biden’s administration which assured that India is thoroughly investigating an alleged plot to assassinate Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. The US State Department on Thursday approved the sale of 31 MQ-9B armed drones to India at an estimated cost of $3.99 billion.

Several media reports claimed that Washington blocked the drone sale to India until New Delhi carried out a thorough probe into an Indian link to the failed plot Pannun. However, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the sale on Friday saying the US-India partnership plays a key role in the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, a day after the State Department did the same.

Under the deal, India will get 31 High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs, of which the Navy will get 15 SeaGuardian drones, while the Army and the Indian Air Force will get eight each of the land version – SkyGuardian. The deal was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US in June last year. The Biden administration on Thursday informed the US Congress on its plan to sell 31 MQ-9B drones to India after Cardin removed his objections.

Months of painstaking discussions

“While I’m fully aware of the significance of this sale, for US national security and strategic interests, I have consistently conveyed my concerns regarding the timing of this sale to administration officials in light of the alleged murder-for-hire plot involving Indian officials in an attempt to assassinate an American citizen on US soil,” Cardin said in a statement.

Cardin said the Biden administration assured him that the Indian government was committed to thoroughly investigating the situation and fully cooperating with the US Department of Justice’s investigation into the alleged Indian link to the foiled plot to kill Pannun. “As the Chairman of this committee, I fully intend to hold the Administration to these commitments,” the 80-year-old senator said.

“My approval of this sale was the result of months of painstaking discussions with the Biden administration… The US-India partnership plays a key role in Indo-Pacific stability, including through regional mechanisms such as the Quad. I support deepening our bilateral relationship with India as long as that partnership is based on mutual trust and respect,” Cardin further said.

Now, for the deal to commence, a Congressional nod is required, and a Letter of Approval (LOA) will be sent to India after 30 days following the approval of the procurement by the US Congress. The process also involves price negotiations after the LOA is formally sent to India.

“Progress on these issues requires difficult discussions about our own democracy, as well as discussions with our closest allies and friends. I will continue raising human rights issues with the Administration, as well as with our Indian counterparts because I believe that our shared values are fundamental to the growth and longevity of our partnership,” the Senator added.

How will the deal benefit India?

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the deal will provide India with an enhanced maritime security and maritime domain awareness capability and offers New Delhi outright ownership and a 16-fold increase in the number of aircraft, as compared to their current lease of two MQ-9A aircraft.

The deal holds significance as it was the same Predator drone that was used in killing al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden in 2011 and Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in July 2022. The MQ-9B drone can carry out a variety of roles including maritime surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, and over-the-horizon targeting. 

Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees are tasked with reviewing major foreign arms sales and regularly ask questions or raise concerns over human rights or diplomatic issues that can delay or stop such deals. Following the transfer of the formal notification by the State Department, Congress has 15 days to object to the sale, after which it is considered final.

The deal was reportedly in hot water as a 52-year-old Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, was charged by US federal prosecutors in November last year on charges of working with an Indian government employee in a foiled plot to kill Pannun, who holds dual US and Canadian citizenships, on American soil. Gupta was arrested in Prague, the Czech Republic on June 30, 2023, and the US government is seeking his extradition to America.

(with inputs from agencies)

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