US Halts $3 Billion Drone Deal with India Amid Assassination Plot Investigation: Inside the Controversy

February 1, 2024 - Reading time: 3 minutes

The United States has postponed the dispatch of 31 MQ-9A drones, encompassing both Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian models, to India. This delay is contingent upon India conducting a substantial inquiry into allegations surrounding an attempt on the life of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Pannun, a proponent of the Khalistan movement living in New York and holding citizenship in both the U.S. and Canada, faces accusations of terrorism by Indian authorities. The halted deal, valued at approximately $3 billion, was meant to supply the Indian Navy with 15 Sea Guardian drones, and allocate eight Sky Guardian drones each to the Indian Air Force and Army.

Furthermore, the U.S. has also paused other minor acquisitions by India, including an offer to purchase six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, intended to augment the 12 P-8I Poseidon aircraft currently in service with the Indian Navy.

The internal approval by the Indian Ministry of Defence for the drone acquisition, ironically, came just a week prior to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington in June 2023, coinciding with the intensification of the conspiracy against Pannun, allegedly initiated by an Indian security official with the pseudonym CC1, as revealed in a federal indictment last November.

A source from Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, informed The Wire that the transaction is currently stalled in the U.S. Congress due to outrage over the audacious plot against Pannun, with legislative processes necessary for the sale's progression being frozen.

The delay, according to a source in Washington, stems from significant concerns among Indian-American lawmakers regarding the implications of the indictment of Nikhil Gupta, who is accused of plotting to assassinate Pannun and is awaiting extradition to the U.S. from the Czech Republic.

A collective statement from five Indian-origin U.S. Congress members highlighted the importance of India's thorough investigation into the matter, holding accountable those involved, including government officials, and ensuring such incidents do not recur.

Gupta faces charges by U.S. federal prosecutors for murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, with potential imprisonment up to 10 years for each charge, following his arrest in the Czech Republic at the request of the United States.

The delay in the drone sale has raised concerns over potential damage to the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and India, urging a prompt and direct response from New Delhi. Both the U.S. State Department and India's defence ministry have refrained from commenting on the delayed approvals.

This situation has led to reassurances from India regarding a comprehensive review of the Pannun case, with decisions from Capitol Hill pending on whether India's actions are deemed sufficient. Prime Minister Modi, meanwhile, has downplayed the impact of this issue on U.S.-India relations, emphasizing strong bipartisan support for the relationship's enhancement and cautioning against linking isolated incidents to the broader diplomatic context.

The Poseidon aircraft and Sea Guardian drones are critical assets for monitoring the Indian Ocean, enhancing the Indian Navy's capability to safeguard international trade routes through these waters. The Sea Guardian's advanced features, such as its endurance, speed, operational ceiling, and payload capacity, underscore its significance to India's defense strategy, alongside the evolving MQ-9A Extended Range variant which offers increased operational flexibility.

DW Staff

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