Defence officials said six US-made MQ-9B Sky Guardian drones – two each for India’s army, navy and airforce – had been ordered as an urgent priority and will be deployed within the next few months. The remainder of the £2.32bn order will be procured over the next few years and will again be shared out equally among the three military services.
A security source said New Delhi was “stepping up the ante” by taking emergency procurements of weapons and military hardware to prepare for the worst-case scenario in the volatile Himalayan border region.
Analysts said the MQ-9B drone had a 40-hour endurance with a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet.
Its payload capacity, including air to surface missile and laser-guided bombs, is up to 2.5 tonnes.
The US usually deploys the drones in military operations against insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa,
An MQ-9 Reaper was used earlier this year in the killing of top Iranian commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last January.
But some of the US fleet is now being reprogrammed for maritime operations and will be deployed in the South China Sea region amid soaring tensions with China.
New Delhi has also asked Israel to upgrade communication links in India’s existing fleet of unmanned Heron aerial drones.
Satellite link issues in the Heron mean two such drones have to be flown in tandem with a time gap so that information is relayed back to base through the second aircraft during long-range surveillance.
But the upgrade will link the Heron drone with the satellite enabling real-time information to be sent back, further enhancing for long-range surveillance capability without the risk of losing contact with the base or flying into no-contact zones.
India is also racing to build a strategic highway in the Ladakh region where Indian and Chinese troops are locked in the most serious confrontation in decades.
The road will provide the only year-round access to border zone where China has already developed a network of roads and helipads on its side of the border.
A source said: “It will become a lot easier for the army after this road is finished.”
The bitter stand-off in the remote western Himalayan region erupted into a bloody hand-to-hand clash in June in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed and China suffered an unspecified number of casualties.
The Asian giants fought a brief but bloody border war in 1962 over the ill-defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) – the de facto frontier between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Beijing has blamed the India’s construction programme for the steep rise in tensions in Ladakh.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said: “China does not recognise the so-called ‘Ladakh Union Territory’ illegally set up by India and is opposed to infrastructure building at the border area for the purpose of military control.
“According to a recent consensus by both sides, no side should be taking any action that complicates the situation at the border area.”