U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visits India
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin shakes hands with India's Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on the day of his ceremonial reception in New Delhi, India, June 5, 2023. Reuters

India's defence ministry has approved the procurement of U.S.-made armed MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones, sources told Reuters on Thursday.

India will buy 31 drones made by General Atomics worth slightly over $3 billion, one of the sources said. India's defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The defence ministry's initial clearance for the procurement comes just days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves for a state visit to the U.S. next week.

According to the two sources, Indian defence ministry's apex body for capital procurement met on Thursday to approve the deal, which is expected to be announced when Modi meets U.S. President Joe Biden next week.

Biden has made deepening defence ties with India a priority to counter China's growing dominance, and has offered to collaborate on military technology even though the two countries lack a formal security alliance.

The ministry's "Acceptance of Necessity" is the first step in the procurement process, which now needs clearance from Modi's cabinet.

The U.S. government approved the sale of 30 drones to India more than two years ago, but the Indian defence ministry had been sitting on the decision.

However, once dates for Modi's four-day U.S. visit starting June 21 were finalised, the Biden administration started nudging India to show progress on the deal.

The drones will predominantly be used by the navy in the Indian Ocean Region. Both of India's traditional adversaries, China and Pakistan, have sophisticated air defence systems that can limit the use of the drones along India's land borders.

The Indian navy has leased two MQ-9B unarmed drones since November 2020 for surveillance.

MQ-9 Reaper drone vs CH-4 - IBT Graphics
it was an MQ-9 that took out Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, in 2020. IBT Graphics

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan finished his two-day visit to New Delhi on Wednesday, meeting his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Modi.

A week earlier American Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had spent two days in Delhi and announced a joint roadmap for defence industry cooperation, providing a boost to India's ambitions of manufacturing more weapons within the country.

The U.S. has been trying to wean India away from its traditional arms dependence on Russia, its largest exporter of weapons for decades.

The Biden administration is also poised to approve manufacturing of General Electric's engines in India for the country's domestically produced fighter jets, which will also be announced during Modi's visit.