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US likely to make sale of Guardian drones to India: Officials

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The Predator drone.

WASHINGTON (PTI): The US is likely to make a positive decision on India's request for state-of-the art unarmed Guardian drones for maritime surveillance, especially in the Indian Ocean.

The move comes after India was designated a major defence partner of the US in June.

Within weeks of that designation, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US President Barack Obama, at the White House in early June, the Indian Navy had sent an official letter of request (LoR) in February to Department of Defense towards purchase of 22 high-tech multi-mission Predator Guardian UAVs.

This was the first major request of arms sale purchase by India after Obama designated New Delhi as a major Strategic Defence partner.

The US government has not made a formal decision on it yet, but is believed to have started an inter-agency process on the Indian request.

According to sources, the administration believes that an approval of such a major military sale would help in "sealing India US defense relationship", bring in "a new level of comfort" between the two militaries and would be considered as a lasting legacy not only for India but also for the Asia-Pacific pivot of the outgoing president.

Officials in Washington believe the sale of predator Guardian UAVs would act as a force multiplier for India's maritime surveillance capabilities in the Indian Ocean region; which of late has become one of the key American objectives in the Asia Pacific region.

Top governmental sources confirmed that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter had detailed discussions on predator Guardian UAV to fulfil maritime surveillance requirements.

Parrikar was in the US last week and held meetings with Carter at the Pentagon on August 29.

During the meeting, Carter is understood to have assured Parrikar he would personally "champion" India's request "within the system," sources said.

At General Atomics which has announced to open office in India this year, the effort is being spearheaded by Dr Vivek Lall who had also been instrumental in India's ability to procure advanced Boeing P8I aircraft for maritime domain awareness capability, they said.

Sources indicate along with the White House, the Pentagon and some influential members of the US are keen to complete the process as soon as possible before Obama leaves his presidency next January.

However, a section within the State Department have to be convinced that this is in the interest of the US national security as well. This maritime capability will be a force multiplier for the Indian Navy who has procured other advanced technologies including the Boeing P-8 aircraft.

The Guardian, manufactured by General Atomics, has cutting edge technologies that do not exist in the current Indian Navy arsenal.

Sources also said beyond the symbolism of this new title, this deal, estimated to be worth US$ 2 billion, will give meat to the bone to this designation and could be considered as a milestone in India-US defense relationship. In addition, it would create several hundred jobs in the US.

However, insiders said that a strong Pakistani lobby is working overtime putting strong resistance to the Indian quest trying to "confuse" the decision and opinion makers with armed drones that could be used against it.

But those pushing for this major arms sales deal which would ultimately go through foreign military sale (FMS) route stress that this is simply unarmed drones to enhance India's maritime surveillance capabilities in the Indian Ocean. It has nothing to do with Pakistan.

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