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US-India ties among most consequential, drone deal to ensure enhanced maritime security: Biden admin

The statement by the US State Department comes after the US approved the sale of 31 MQ-9B armed drones to India on Thursday. Meanwhile, Indian Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu is retiring from foreign service after a distinguished career spanning over three decades.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Updated on: February 02, 2024 11:56 IST
India-US relations, drone deal, PM Modi, Biden administration
Image Source : PTI (FILE) Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden.

Washington: The US Department of State on Thursday (local time) said that America's partnership with India is one of the country's most consequential relationships, hours after the sale of 31 MQ-9B armed drones to India at an estimated cost of $3.99 billion. The drone deal was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington in June last year.

Speaking to reporters, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller touched upon the sale of armed drones and the departure of Indian Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu on Thursday. "I would say that our partnership with India is one of most consequential relationships. We work closely with India on our most vital priorities," Miller said. 

Speaking on Sandhu's end of tenure as the Indian envoy, the spokesperson said, "We have had a close working relationship with the ambassador, have been able to work with him on a number of those shared priorities, including the crucial role India plays in ensuring a free, open Indo-Pacific that is connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient. We wish him well in his future endeavors and look forward to welcoming his replacement."

Miller also said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar shared a "close working relationship", where they engage on some of the most urgent and important priorities of the two countries. "Obviously the Secretary has traveled to India to meet with the foreign minister on a number of occasions. He’s welcomed him here, he’s met with him in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and we look forward to continuing to work with him," he added.

"I will say with respect to the deal itself, the $3.99 – almost 4 billion sale of 31 MQ-9B SkyGuardian aircraft will provide India with an enhanced maritime security and maritime domain awareness capability. It offers India outright ownership and a 16-fold increase in the number of aircraft, as compared to their current lease of two MQ-9A aircraft," he added.

US sale of armed drones to India

The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency said on Thursday that the Biden administration has approved the sale of MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft and related equipment for an estimated cost of $3.99 billion. "This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States by helping to strengthen the US-Indian strategic relationship and to improve the security of a major defence partner, which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region,” the agency said.

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 major development came amid media reports that said Washington blocked the drone sale to India until New Delhi carried out a thorough probe into an Indian link to the failed plot to kill Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

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. 

Taranjit Singh Sandhu's career

Sandhu assumed charge as the Indian Ambassador to the United States in February 2020 and was immediately tasked with overseeing then-President Donald Trump's India visit, followed by keeping up the momentum in bilateral ties. He also played a crucial role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's historic state visit to the US in June last year and President Joe Biden's first visit to India.

He is one of the most experienced Indian diplomats on US affairs, having served in the Indian Mission in Washington DC twice earlier. He was Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of India in Washington DC from July 2013 to January 2017. He will now retire from the foreign service after more than three decades of a glorious career. 

Sandhu was given a proper farewell by top US officials and Senators before his retirement. His career as the US envoy was replete with challenges, having steered through COVID-19, helping Indian students return home, working through visa backlogs for the diaspora, and strengthening vaccine diplomacy between the two countries.

“A post-Covid-era saw the onset of Ambassador Sandhu helping lead the first in-principal Quad Summit in Washington, the restart of the Trade Policy Forum, and then the onset of the I2U2, IPEF, consolidating bilateral ties in multilateral settings,” said Mukesh Aghi, CEO of US-India Strategic and Partnership Forum (USISPF).

Ashley Tellis, a top American expert on India, in his remarks, said that Sandhu has been an insidious contributor to this relationship because he understood right from the beginning how important this partnership is for the future of both countries. “In his last tenure here in Washington, he had to deal with a very complex environment in terms of our bilateral relationship. But the fact that we have still managed to stay the course and move this relationship ever upward is a great tribute to you, Taranjit,” Tellis said.

(with inputs from agencies)

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