State-run aerospace behemoth Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) will provide maintenance support services for engines of American MQ-9B Remotely Piloted Aircraft System, considered one of the most sophisticated armed drones globally, for their operations in India, officials said on Wednesday.
The announcement of the project comes amid Indias ongoing talks with the US to procure 30 MQ-9B armed drones at a cost of over USD 3 billion primarily to crank up its surveillance apparatus along the frontier with China as well as in the Indian Ocean region.
The HAL and US defence major General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI), the manufacturer of the MQ-9Bs, announced the collaboration on the MRO (maintenance repair and overhaul) services for the drones on the sidelines of Aero India-2023 at the Yelahanka air base complex. In 2020, the Indian Navy had taken on lease two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones from General Atomics for a period of one year for surveillance in the Indian Ocean. The lease period has been extended subsequently.
The GA-ASI and HAL said the turbo-propeller engines, which power GA-ASIs state-of-art MQ-9B drone, will be supported by Indian aerospace majors engine division at Bengaluru for the Indian market.
“GA-ASI is proud to collaborate with HAL on this prestigious project,” said Dr Vivek Lall, Chief Executive, General Atomics Global Corporation. “HAL is the foremost Indian public sector Aerospace and Defence agency, and its vast experience in the domain of aero-engine technology makes it our natural partner in India,” he said.
Though the turboprop engine fitted on board the MQ-9B RPAS looks similar to other commercial engines in its category, it is unique in its configuration and operation, requiring special training and equipment to maintain, repair and overhaul.
An expression of interest was exchanged between Dr Lall and B Krishna Kumar, Executive Director (Engines) at HAL. “HAL has been manufacturing and providing MRO support for TPE 331-5 engines for the last 40 years. We are also establishing facilities for manufacturing TPE 331-12B engines for HTT-40 project. The engine used on the MQ-9B RPAS belongs to the same family of engines with upgraded configuration to adapt to the RPAS technology,” said C B Ananthakrishnan, Chairman and Managing Director of HAL. “I am glad that HAL engine division, Bangalore would be providing MRO support to the engine for MQ-9B RPAS, one of the most sophisticated equipment in the world,” said Ananthakrishnan.
In a statement, the GA-ASI said it and HAL are eagerly looking forward to formulating a comprehensive engine MRO programme for upcoming RPAS projects. “This joint collaboration echoes Indias clarion call for Atmanirbhar or self-reliance, while underscoring the deep industrial connection between the US and Indian Aerospace Companies,” it said.
The drone is the first hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for long-endurance and high-altitude surveillance.
The MQ-9B has signals intelligence and communications intelligence systems integrated on board, but it can take any number of other custom sensors as necessary.
In 2019, the US approved the sale of armed drones to India and even offered integrated air and missile defence systems.
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