India can save billions as US plans to retire Global Hawk drones - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 25 November 2019

India can save billions as US plans to retire Global Hawk drones

To save money for cutting-edge warfighting weapons, the USAF has proposed to the scrap two-thirds of its fleet of 35 Global Hawk drones. India should snap them up

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Nov 19

Stemming from America’s changing security threats is a lucrative opportunity for New Delhi to save billions of dollars on its on-going purchase of 30 Sea Guardian unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and another 10 P-8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft (MMA) for monitoring the Indian Ocean. 

Instead of spending an estimated $2.5 billion on Sea Guardian drones, India could buy up to 24 far more capable, sophisticated and longer-range RQ-4 Global Hawk drones that the US Air Force (USAF) wants to discard. It believes long-range drones are superfluous as Washington shifts attention from combating terrorism (which requires drones to track and kill terrorists) and focuses instead on building the capabilities needed to combat a new threat – superpower adversaries Russia and China.

To save money for buying cutting-edge warfighting weapons like stealth bombers and hypersonic missiles, the USAF has reportedly proposed to the US Department of Defense (the Pentagon) to scrap two-thirds of its fleet of about 35 Global Hawk drones.

If the Pentagon accepts the USAF proposal, that would clear the decks for India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) to ask for the retired Global Hawk UASs under the Pentagon’s “Excess Defence Articles” (EDA) programme. The Pentagon’s decision will be known in February 2020, when it submits its final budget projections to the US Congress.

The EDA programme allows the Pentagon to supply its unneeded weaponry to allies and partner countries at heavily discounted prices, or even free of cost in cases where US national security objectives are being furthered. Building India’s capability as a “net security provider” in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a stated US national security policy objective.

In 2005, India experienced the cost benefits of buying US equipment under the EDA programme. That year, the Pentagon sold the Indian Navy the USS Trenton -- an amphibious warfare ship, now renamed INS Jalashwa -- for just $60 million, about a tenth of what it was worth. That price included the cost of six helicopters on the warship. The Jalashwa is currently the second-biggest warship in India’s navy.

The Global Hawk is classified as a “high altitude long endurance” (HALE) UAS, that can carry out surveillance of a stretch of land or ocean for over 30 hours continuously, physically scanning up to 100,000 square kilometres each day – more than the Sea Guardians that India’s millitary is currently acquiring. 

Teams of drone pilots, working in shifts, fly long-range drone missions from ground stations thousands of kilometres away, using satellite communication links. The information the UAS picks up is transmitted to the ground station in real time, allowing the military to respond to threats immediately.

US firm Northrop Grumman, which designed and built the Global Hawk, is currently developing it into a maritime variant called the MQ-4C Triton, which is customised for oceanic surveillance. Under the so-called Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, Northrop Grumman is integrating the Triton with the P-8A Poseidon for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) maritime missions.

Joining the US, Australia, which also operates the P-8A Poseidon, has joined BAMS. With the Indian Navy currently operating the world’s largest Poseidon fleet (outside for the US Navy), acquiring Global Hawks under the EDA programme and modifying them to MQ-4C Triton configuration could provide a cheap and effective BAMS solution for surveillance of the Indian Ocean.

Since 2001, a generation of US drones like the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk has played a central role in the “War on Terror”, killing hundreds of terrorists and their supporters in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. But UAS are highly vulnerable to radar-based air defence systems of the kind that state adversaries deploy. This was underscored in June, when Iran shot down a Global Hawk that America was operating over the Strait of Hormuz.

However, India does not intend to fly Sea Guardian drones (or Global Hawks if those are bought) over hostile airspace, but over international waters – to monitor shipping over the vast expanses of the Indian Ocean. Therefore the vulnerability of these UAS to radar-guided air defence weapons is not a major concern.

Asked whether it plans to approach the Pentagon for buying surplus Global Hawk drones under the EDA programme, the navy has not commented.

The Pentagon’s shift from counterterrorism to combating great-power threats from China and Russia has been laid out in the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy document that was published in January 2018.


  1. If they do retire these drones, its a golden opportunity for Indian Navy to acquire them and upgrade their wide area naval ISR capabilities. They can buy all of them at cheaper prices than the 24 Sea Guardians in pipeline.

    Moreover, there is wide capability gap between Triton's AN/ZPY-3 AESA radar and Guardian's SeaVue radars. In every capability, RQ-4 is better, reason why it got selected and Guardian did't. The fear is, India will keep observing meanwhile faster decision making countries will acquire them.

    We are a country of chronic repentants!

  2. We must buy them. Mumbai needs to be protected from pak mercenaries. Atomic installations like bhabha will require cover.

    Sri Lankan waters will also need to patrolled for chinese subs plus secure our oil routes from terrorists.

  3. operational costs... issues... allows only... 1/3rd fleet...

  4. I think the forces are looking for a weaponised version so triton will not fit the bill. anyways doubt the drones will make much progress considering the fact that there is budget squeeze and with economy not doing too well expect further delays on large value contracts, including MMRCA.

  5. These must be retired for a reason. Let us buy latest tech, will be easier to maintain.

  6. If we place an order for mh60 Romeo maritime helicopters which we badly need + an additional assortment of apaches and chinooks to the ones already arriving,
    I think america will have an incentive to give them away just like it did the USS Trenton

  7. And India continues to collect the discarded garbage of the world.


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