MQ-9B Sky Guardians
An image of MQ-9B Sky Guardian, the most advanced among the Predator drones built by General Atomics Image Credit: Courtesy of General Atomics/

WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday approved a $4 billion sale of state-of-the-art drones to India, after a delay following an alleged assassination plot on US soil.

The sale marks a milestone in Indian purchases of American weapons after New Delhi's historic reliance on arms from Russia, which have been increasingly controversial due to sanctions over the attack on Ukraine.

Indian officials had discussed the drones during a state visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year at the invitation of President Joe Biden.

After months of discussion with US lawmakers and India, the State Department formally informed Congress of the sale that includes 31 MQ-9B Sky Guardians, the most advanced among the Predator drones built by General Atomics.

Meeting future threats

"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," a State Department statement said.

"India has demonstrated a commitment to modernizing its military and will have no difficulty absorbing these articles and services into its armed forces."

While India had long enjoyed wide support in the US Congress, the mega-deal faced a holdup in Congress after US prosecutors alleged a plot to kill a Sikh separatist leader with US citizenship in New York.

Most explosively, the Justice Department alleged that an Indian government official directed the plan remotely.

India promised to look into the claim, in a more measured response than the Modi government's furious response when Canada earlier alleged involvement by New Delhi in the killing of a Sikh separatist near Vancouver.

But some US lawmakers questioned whether both Modi and the Biden administration were taking the allegations seriously enough - and put off their informal green-lighting of the sale.

Sea Guardians

The Sea Guardians, a maritime-focussed version of the Sky Guardians, can monitor the seas as well as submarines and can remain airborne for 35 hours at a time and fire Hellfire missiles and carry around 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) of bombs.

The Indian Navy has already been operating two Predator drones on lease through which it has monitored Arabian Sea to protect ships from attacks by Yemen's Huthi rebels and Somali pirates.