U.S. Drones to Help India Track Chinese Troops on Disputed Border

U.S. Drones to Help India Track Chinese Troops on Disputed Border

Tech News

Until a few years ago, India relied largely on human patrols to watch the disputed boundary. But that was a different, less-fraught era of relations between the neighbors. A deadly 2020 confrontation between their security forces jolted New Delhi and cast a chill over ties, driving both sides to increase border deployments of troops, weapons and surveillance equipment.

India plans to purchase upgraded MQ-9B drones in a transaction valued at roughly $3 billion. The deal was announced by the U.S. and India Thursday in Washington, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first state visit to the U.S.

As part of the deal, India is expected to get about 30 MQ-9B high-altitude drones, which would be a mix of SeaGuardians and SkyGuardians, according to Indian officials. Some of them would be assembled in India and would be armed. About half of them are expected to go to the Indian navy, while the rest would be used by the Indian army and air force for surveillance, the officials said.

The purchase shows India’s heightened efforts to keep a closer eye on the border, where it faces a formidable and well-equipped adversary. Over decades, China has developed far better infrastructure on its side, giving its soldiers a big advantage—and that buildup is continuing.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal ahead of the visit, Modi said the countries had reached an unprecedented level of trust, calling the defense cooperation a key pillar of the partnership.

Last week, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said he thought the state visit would be a transformational moment in the relationship between New Delhi and Washington, adding that the China challenge is among the key drivers of the increasing closeness.

While India isn’t a U.S. security ally, the two share a deep distrust of Beijing. That has meant greater cooperation between them, including intelligence-sharing, arms sales and joint production of weapons.

The U.S. and India also reached a deal to manufacture General Electric’s jet-fighter engines in India. That agreement will give New Delhi highly sensitive military technology—the same engine used in U.S. F/A-18 fighters—to power its next generation of jet fighters.

New Delhi has shrugged off its decadeslong wariness of the U.S., which was rooted in part by Washington’s support for its rival Pakistan. It has more deeply embraced the Quad, a grouping with Japan, Australia and the U.S., that cooperates on security and a range of other issues.

“We could use a word from European history—entente” to describe the relationship between the U.S. and India, said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “This suggests an informal rather than a formal alliance.”

New Delhi’s tense rivalry with China stems from its dispute over the 2,000-mile border between the two countries, known as the Line of Actual Control. It has spread to other areas of the relationship, with New Delhi banning dozens of Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok, after the 2020 clash. The two countries also recently kicked each others’ journalists out.

Beijing in recent years has taken a more aggressive stance to the decades-old territorial dispute and is trying to encroach—bit by bit—onto land that India claims, Indian security officials said. As a result, New Delhi faces the tough task of closely watching the border to avoid being caught off guard by what it sees as China’s stealthy, incremental moves, the officials said.

That is where drones have come into play. New Delhi operates dozens of Indian- and Israeli-made drones, many of them equipped with advanced sensors and cameras, and is also using satellite imagery to track Chinese activities in border areas, Indian security officials said. The equipment captures information about Chinese troop and weapons deployments, artillery positions and new border infrastructure, the officials said.

What they are watching for, in particular, is Chinese personnel crossing into territory that India sees as its own and establishing a presence there by building military encampments or roads. Chinese forces have in recent years sought to occupy disputed areas and cut off India’s ability to patrol border territory to which it previously had access, according to Indian security officials and experts.

“Now we are in a position to anticipate the moves of People’s Liberation Army and preposition our forces to foil any misadventure,” said Gen. M.M. Naravane, who retired as India’s army chief last year. “Our aim is to have 24-hour all-weather surveillance for areas of interest using all our means.”

That is no easy task. The lengthy border runs from the remote mountainous region of Ladakh to the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. Much of the border is disputed, creating areas of overlapping claims.

Research by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies published last year, for instance, shows China is expanding infrastructure. A new Chinese bridge, for instance, is coming up across a section of the Pangong Tso lake in eastern Ladakh. The bridge stands to significantly speed up the movement of Chinese forces on both sides of the lake, the report said.

Indian officials say China also extensively uses drones to watch the border. A few months after a 2020 confrontation between Chinese and Indian security forces at Pangong Tso lake, both sides agreed to pull back troops—an exercise they monitored via drones, Indian officials said.

India’s fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles include 125 Israeli-made Searcher Mark-II drones, which can clock long hours at high altitudes of around 18,500 feet, and 90 Heron drones, which are also made in Israel.

Given the increasing importance of such systems, the country’s army has in recent months bought more drones, cameras and sensors to deploy at key points of friction. One recent order, for instance, is for 850 units of what are known as nano drones, whose small size allows for easier transportation and deployment in large numbers.

In addition to drones, India also uses Boeing’s P-8I patrol aircraft and has increased fighter-jet sorties along the border, according to Indian officials.

“With a mix of U.S.-made P-81, Romeo helicopters and now Predator drones, our killchain will strengthen significantly against adversaries,” said a former senior Indian Navy official.

A military-intelligence official said the use of drones had diminished the chances of what the official called tactical surprises from China. “Drone technology has proved to be a force multiplier in military operations across the world,” said the official. “In our case the noticeable increase in incidents along the borders have made it necessary to have it.”

The U.S. has been collaborating more closely with India in other ways. Last year, Indian and American troops participated in a high-altitude military exercise about 60 miles from the India-China border in the northern Uttarakhand state. The countries have ramped up maritime cooperation as China increases its presence in the Indian Ocean through its submarine deployments and port investments.

Some security experts warn there are limitations to the ties. Despite its rivalry with Beijing, India is unlikely to join the U.S. in a military confrontation with China over Taiwan, they say.

India and the U.S. also diverge on Russia, which is a close partner for New Delhi. Although India is buying more military equipment from the U.S., Moscow remains its largest supplier of arms including military aircraft, helicopters and the S-400 missile-defense system.

Still, Washington sees New Delhi as part of a web of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific designed to demonstrate its strength and push back against Chinese actions.

Ashok Malik, a partner at strategic advisory firm The Asia Group, says China isn’t just a military problem for India. Its economic weight, stranglehold on global supply chains, technology accretion and revisionist strategic posture open up challenges on many fronts.

“Balancing China requires looking at each of these parameters,” he said. “That is where the multi-sectoral partnership with the U.S. becomes important.”

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