India has recently inked a substantial agreement with the United States, marking a significant milestone in its defense capabilities. This deal, valued at US$3.07 billion, entails the purchase of 31 Mq-9B Sea-Guardian high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The ramifications of this acquisition are poised to reverberate across the Indian Navy’s arsenal and geopolitical dynamics in the region.
A primary focal point of this procurement is the profound enhancement it brings to the Indian Navy’s airborne anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. Out of the 31 Mq-9B Sea-Guardians, 15 will find a home within the Indian Navy. Consequently, India will ascend to a distinguished position as the world’s second naval force, following the United States, to operate an airborne anti-submarine triad. This momentous leap forward is anticipated to revolutionize India’s ability to detect and neutralize conventional attack submarines operated by neighboring Pakistan.
The Mq-9B Sea-Guardian stands as a paragon of cutting-edge UAV technology, with General Atomics as its manufacturer. What sets this UAV apart is its extraordinary aptitude for hunting and eliminating enemy submarines. It lays claim to the title of being the sole fixed-wing UAV globally equipped to carry sonobuoys, which are instrumental in anti-submarine warfare. With four wing stations accommodating 4 SDS pods, the Mq-9B Sea-Guardian can transport either 40 ‘A’ size or 80 ‘G’ size sonobuoys.
This UAV possesses the capability to analyze data emanating from approximately 32 sonobuoys, facilitating the detection, classification, and tracking of underwater systems. It recently demonstrated this prowess during the US Navy’s Integrated Battle Problem exercise in 2021. By offering a cost-effective alternative to manned maritime patrol aircraft, the Mq-9B Sea-Guardian equips naval commanders with a potent tool.
Further enhancing its appeal is the Mq-9B’s endurance, boasting an impressive 30+ hours of operational time that significantly surpasses the limitations of manned maritime aircraft and helicopters. This extended station-keeping capability renders it ideal for the protracted and often arduous task of locating and engaging enemy submarines in vast oceans. Costing a mere US$5,000 per hour compared to the US$35,000 per hour of P-8 aircraft, it also proves to be a financially prudent choice. Additionally, its operational range spans over 5000 nautical miles, with a flight ceiling exceeding 40,000 feet. Its inbuilt tactical data link system further facilitates real-time communication with other platforms.
Upon formal integration into the Indian Navy’s fleet, it will claim the distinction of being the first naval force, outside of the United States, to possess an active airborne anti-submarine triad. Comprising maritime patrol aircraft, dual-purpose helicopters, and long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, this triad includes the P-8 Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft, Mq-9B Sea-Guardian, and MH-60R helicopters equipped with ASW capabilities. The P-8 and MH-60 share the Mq-9B’s ability to detect and track enemy submarines. A P-8 on an ASW mission can carry a payload of 129 A-type sonobuoys or a combination of sonobuoys and torpedoes, with 12 such aircraft currently in Indian Navy service. The MH-60 can also carry both payloads simultaneously, albeit in fewer numbers than the P-8. India’s naval arm already operates six MH-60R ASW helicopters out of the 24 ordered in a 2020 deal worth US$2.6 billion, with the remainder expected to become operational within the next two years.
With the introduction of the Mq-9B, the Indian Navy’s search-and-tracking capabilities are poised for significant augmentation. This newfound precision in ascertaining the location of Pakistan’s submarines places the Pakistan Navy at a considerable disadvantage. The Mq-9B’s interoperability with existing anti-sub platforms, namely the P-8 and MH-60, allows it to assume command of missions in their absence, extending coverage over targeted areas. As a result, the Mq-9B emerges as the vanguard of the airborne triad, conducting operations beyond territorial boundaries and detecting Pakistan’s subs on the high seas.
Moreover, the Mq-9B’s multi-domain mission capability grants it the authority not only to participate in missions but also to oversee other platforms. In contrast to the P-8 and MH-60, which face constraints in terms of mission time and human fatigue, the unmanned Mq-9B can remain airborne for over a day and a half, continuously surveilling the target area.
The induction of the Mq-9B holds the potential to be a game-changer, considerably challenging the Pakistan Navy’s offensive operations. Its extended surveying capabilities and interoperability render it a formidable platform. India’s intent to acquire additional units underscores its commitment to leveraging this strategic advantage. Consequently, the Pakistan Navy faces formidable challenges and must bolster its naval air arm with modern air superiority aircraft. Additionally, addressing the acoustic signature of Pakistan’s platforms, especially the eight new Yuan class submarines procured from China, emerges as a pressing imperative in the realm of acoustic-based submarine detection.
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