India will become the latest operator of the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9B SkyGuardian remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA), following Washington’s approval of an export request from New Delhi.

Arms control regulators at the US Department of State gave their ascent to the deal on 1 February, in which General Atomics will provide India 31 examples of the latest MQ-9 variant – a package valued at nearly $4 billion.

“The proposed sale will improve India’s capability to meet current and future threats by enabling unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance patrols in sea lanes of operation,” the state department notes.

The sizeable 31-aircraft fleet will make India the largest operator of the SkyGuardian – which is derived from General Atomics’ popular MQ-9A Reaper combat RPA.


Source: Genera Atomics Aeronautical Systems

With export approval secured, India is poised to become the latest MQ-9B operator, joining the UK, Canada, Belgium and US Special Operations Command

The long-endurance platform is primarily oriented toward intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), but is also capable of carrying precision strike munitions.

India had communicated its desire to acquire the MQ-9B in June 2023, during an official visit to Washington by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The White House endorsed the deal at the time.

“President Biden and Prime Minister Modi welcomed India’s plans to procure General Atomics MQ-9B [high-altitude, long-endurance] UAVs,” the office of the US president said in June.

While the sale is not yet final, securing Foreign Military Sales (FMS) approval from the US government is a key milestone that will allow the Pentagon to enter into a final delivery agreement with General Atomics, on behalf of India.

The earlier White House statement offered some hints as to how India and General Atomics plan to handle production and sustainment of the 31 uncrewed aircraft.

“The MQ-9Bs, which will be assembled in India, will enhance the ISR capabilities of India’s armed forces across domains,” Washington said. “As part of this plan, General Atomics will also establish a comprehensive global MRO facility in India to support India’s long-term goals to boost indigenous defence capabilities.”

The deal is a significant win for San Diego-based General Atomics, which has been steadily adding new customers to its MQ-9B programme. The company reacted to the India development with cautious optimism, citing the “complex and very deliberate” nature of the FMS process.

“We’re aware of the announcement and very excited by the advancement of this request to the next level of discussions,” the company told FlightGlobal on 1 February.

General Atomics notes it has leased MQ-9Bs to New Delhi for operational evaluation, which are currently flying with the Indian navy. Those aircraft have logged more than 10,000 flight hours on national security missions.

“MQ-9B makes an immediate impact every time it’s introduced to a new region,” General Atomics says. “Buying 31 aircraft would have a tremendous impact on US and Indian national security in the Indo-Pacific region.”


Source: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

With plans to acquire 31 of the remotely piloted aircraft, India is set to become the largest operator of the MQ-9B type

The UK Royal Air Force (RAF) is set to become the first military operator of the type this year, after accepting delivery of its first MQ-9B in October 2023. The RPA has been designated the Protector RG1 in the RAF.

The RAF ultimately plans to acquire 16 Protectors, which will be based at RAF Wadington in Lincolnshire. The service has begun flight trials with its initial aircraft, and plans to for the UK MQ-9B fleet to reach full operational capability by 2025.

Canada signed on as a SkyGuardian customer in December 2023, with Ottawa announcing plans for a direct commercial sales acquisition of 11 MQ-9Bs. That package, valued at C$2.49 billion ($1.97 billion), will deliver the first RPA to the Canadian Armed Forces inventory.

The US Air Force (USAF) Special Operations Command became the first US SkyGuardian customer in March 2023. The command is major operator of the predecessor MQ-9A, with more than 40 Reapers in service over the past 14 years.

Belgium received approval from Washington in 2019 to purchase four SkyGuardians, with Brussels and London signing an MQ-9B partnership agreement in 2023.

The Japanese Coast Guard also operates the maritime variant of the MQ-9B, known as the SeaGuardian.

While it can be armed and configured for defence missions, General Atomics designed the MQ-9B with suitability for civil aviation in mind.

The company describes the type as the first type-certifiable RPA, noting it built the SkyGuardian to comply with civil airspace requirements in the USA and the UK.

“SkyGuardian seamlessly integrates with normal air traffic just like other commercial aircraft,” General Atomics says on its website. “SkyGuardian’s remote flight station gives operators a similar, if not better, air traffic picture than the cockpit of human-crewed aircraft.”

Approval from civil regulators expands the potential customer base for the MQ-9B beyond traditional military operators, to include civil defence and law enforcement agencies.