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US blocks $3b drone sale to India over Khalistan leader assassination conspiracy

The US government has held back delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India until New Delhi carries out a “meaningful investigation” into the conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, The Wire has learned.

Pannun, who hold dual US and Canadian citizenship, is a New York-based Khalistan activist.

The proposed $3 billion purchase includes 15 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy, while the Indian Air Force and Army are supposed to get eight Sky Guardian drones each.

Also held back by Washington are smaller Indian acquisitions, including a proposal to buy six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft. These are to supplement 12 P-8I Poseidon aircraft that the Indian Navy already operates.

Ironically, the Indian Ministry of Defence’s internal approval for the now-stalled drone procurement came in June 2023, a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington. This was also the time when the conspiracy to kill Pannun – allegedly set in motion by an Indian security official named CC1, according to a federal indictment made public last November – shifted to high gear.

 

Today, “the purchase is stuck in the US Congress because of anger over the brazen attempt to assassinate Pannun. US representatives have frozen the legislative movement needed for proceeding with the sale,” a highly-placed source in Washington told this reporter. The source, who operates at the top layer of US policymaking, cannot be identified as he is not  authorised to speak to the media.

Explaining the delay in delivering these lethal, long-range weapons to India, the Washington-based source says that Indian-American lawmakers in particular are deeply concerned about the fallout from the indictment of an Indian named Nikhil Gupta. He has  been formally charged with conspiring to kill Pannun, and is currently in detention in the Czech Republic pending his deportation to the US.

In a joint statement on the Pannun plot last December, five US Congress members of Indian origin – who received a classified briefing from the Biden administration on the federal indictment – said that it is critical for India to “fully investigate [and] hold those responsible, including Indian government officials, accountable, and provide assurances that this will not happen again”.

US federal prosecutors allege that Gupta had promised $100,000 to an FBI agent posing as a hitman to kill Pannun in New York. Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 at America’s request.

On November 29, US federal prosecutors charged Gupta with murder-for-hire, which carries up to 10 years in prison; and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, which has a maximum sentence of a 10-year jail term.

The Indian-American lawmakers also warned of “significant damage” to the US-India partnership if New Delhi does not address the situation directly and quickly.

Contacted for comments on the delayed approvals for the drone deal, the US State Department said: “We do not comment on arms sales until we have formally notified [the US] Congress,”

The Indian Navy and India’s defence ministry also did not respond to a request for comments.

“India has given its commitment to make a full accounting of the Pannun affair. And then the [Capitol] Hill is going to exercise its judgement on whether India has taken adequate measures or not,” says the Washington insider.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has played down the impact of this issue on Indo-US ties. In an interview to the Financial Times, Modi said: “There is strong bipartisan support for the strengthening of this relationship” and that he didn’t think it appropriate “to link a few incidents with diplomatic relations between the two countries”.

The Poseidon aircraft and Sea Guardian drones work together, watching over large swathes of the Indian Ocean and will give the Indian Navy an enhanced ability to respond to any attempts to disrupt international trade routes that pass through these waters.

The versatile Sea Guardian drone has an endurance of over 27 hours, a speed of 240 knots, an operating ceiling of 50,000 feet, and 1,746 kilograms of payload capacity that includes 1,361 kilograms of external stores. The MQ-9A is powered by the Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine, which significantly improves engine performance and fuel efficiency, particularly at low altitudes.

Being in operational service with the US military, the MQ-9A continues to evolve, keeping it relevant for its customers’ emerging needs. The MQ-9A Extended Range (ER) was designed with field-retrofittable capabilities such as wing-borne fuel pods and a new reinforced landing gear that extends the aircraft’s already impressive endurance from 27 hours to 34 hours, while further increasing its operational flexibility.