Flat budget means Navy has fewer Sea Guardian drones, P-8I aircraft

The Sea Guardian drone can watch for as long as 24-36 hours over a patrol area 1,000 km from its base
The Navy’s critical mission to watch over the Indian Ocean is being undermined by a capital budget that has declined on a real basis. Plans to buy a fleet of Sea Guardian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — commonly called drones — and more than double the P-8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMAs) fleet have been pared down, say Navy planners.

India was planning to buy 22 Sea Guardian drones for the Navy, a purchase worth $2 billion. There was another $4 billion plan to expand the P-8I Poseidon fleet up to 28 aircraft, to build an adequate fleet of long-range maritime reconnaissance assets.

But now the Navy is buying only 10 Sea Guardians and expanding its P-8I fleet to just 20-22 aircraft. Part of the surveillance task will be taken up by launching a dedicated surveillance satellite that all three services — Army, Navy and Air Force — can share. 

However, the Sea Guardians now being bought are more capable UAVs than earlier envisioned. Navy sources say the “price and availability” details received recently from Washington are for a Sea Guardian that can carry out long-endurance, high-altitude surveillance, as well as the “hunter-killer” role with its on-board missiles.

Furthermore, the Navy’s purchase of drones will be done alongside their purchase for the Army and Air Force as well. US firm, General Atomics, which builds the Sea Guardian for maritime surveillance, will also supply an unspecified number of the MQ-9 Reaper drone — a non-maritime version for the Army and Air Force.

With Washington having green-lighted the purchase of the fully loaded Sea Guardian and MQ-9 Reaper, the military is preparing a “statement of case”. Based on this, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) will clear a tri-service procurement, with a single contract for drones for the Army, Navy and Air Force.

With India last year joining the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) with the US, US export control hurdles to this sale have been significantly lowered.

Currently, all the Navy has by way of long range maritime surveillance assets are eight P-8I Poseidon’s that Boeing delivered between 2013-2015. That $2 billion purchase was supplemented in 2016 with a billion dollar purchase of four more P-8Is, deliveries of which will start in 2020-21. Thereafter, the Navy will order no more than another 8-10, capping the P-8I fleet at 20-22 aircraft.

“The P-8I is the world’s premier maritime aircraft, but we must scale down, partly to reduce costs. But we will share surveillance responsibilities across platforms,” says a senior admiral in New Delhi.

The P-8I and the Sea Guardian complement each other in watching over vast ocean expanses. The P-8I, which is based upon the Boeing 737 airframe, carries a larger weapons payload, including heavy torpedoes and the Harpoon anti-ship missile that can sink submarines and surface warships. However, being a manned platform, crew fatigue limits the P-8I’s endurance to 8-10 hours.

In contrast, the Sea Guardian drone can watch for as long as 24-36 hours over a patrol area 1,000 km from its base. Its pilots and weapons operators work in shifts at a ground station ashore, connected with the drone through a two-way data link. With crewmembers relieving each other every 6-8 hours, the Sea Guardian’s endurance is limited only by its fuel capacity.

While the Sea Guardian is not as heavily armed as the P-8I, the ones being supplied to India carry two small anti-ship missiles to strike any targets that appear. Alternatively, the ground station on shore can home in a P-8I to strike the target, or direct fighters like the maritime strike Jaguar.

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