Biden Admin Notifies A Wary Congress Of Drone Sales To India
WASHINGTON, DC (IANS) – The Joe Biden administration notified the US Congress on February 1 of the proposed sale of 31 MQ-9B HALE armed drones, clearing a period of informal review that had raised concerns of the deal being in some kind of jeopardy.
Congress now has 30 days to either greenlight the deal by doing nothing or reject it through a congressional vote. There is no attempt to put a “hold” on it yet, but as a person familiar with the development said, “The clock starts now.”
The notification by the US State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency has come amidst reports that some lawmakers had tried to link the deal’s clearance to India’s wholehearted cooperation with a US investigation into allegations that an Indian businessman Nikhil Gupta, tried to arrange a murder-for-hire hit on a US-based Khalistani activist. Gupta is in the custody of Czech authorities in Prague on an extradition request from the US.
The $3 billion deal was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden in June 2023 along with joint production of GE jet engines in India.
Of the 31 MQ-9B UAVs, 15 Sea Guardians are meant for the Indian Navy, and eight each for the Indian Air Force and Indian Army. India is currently using two of these armed drones in a company-owned, company-operated lease agreement. These drones are being used by the US, the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, and Japan.
India is buying these drones in a government-to-government deal through a process called Foreign Military Sale, which must be cleared by Congress after a statutory period of 15, 30, or 45 days, depending on the size of the sale and the purchasing country. In this instance, Congress has 30 days.
A US State Department Spokesperson on January 31 did not deny or confirm a news report that the proposed sale of MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones to India was being blocked by lawmakers but did say that officials “routinely consult” with members of the foreign relations committees of the US Congress and address any “questions” that they may have before they are formally notified in the final stage of the approval process.
‘The Wire’ reported that the sale of 31 of these armed drones to India for $3 billion was being blocked by lawmakers to ensure India cooperated with the US investigation into allegations that an Indian businessman had tried to arrange the killing of a US-based Khalistani activist at the direction of an official in India.
Although the report cited a joint statement issued by the five Indian-descent members of the US Congress that threatened long-term damage to the relationship if India came up short in cooperating with the US investigation, the outrage felt on Capitol Hill, home to US Congress, over the alleged assassination attempt was much broader.
The proposed sale of these Sea Guardian drones was among two big-ticket announcements by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden in June. The other was the joint production of GE jet engines in India.
“Congress plays — as you know — an important role in the US arms transfer process,” Mathew Miller, the Spokesperson, said in response to a question at the State Department’s daily briefing.
“We routinely consult with members of Congress with the foreign — on the foreign affairs committees before our formal notification to — so we can address questions that they might have, but I don’t have any comment on when that formal notification might take place.”
While the spokesperson said no more, the deal may be in some jeopardy — delays more likely than cancellation — as lawmakers seek to convey their consternation over Indian involvement in a plot to kill a US-based Khalistani activist, as alleged in an indictment filed in a federal court in New York in June, the same month as Modi’s state visit, but unsealed last November.
People with knowledge of such consultations said that in the period before the State Department notifies Congress of a proposed sale, informal discussions do indeed take place. Lawmakers of the foreign affairs committees of the two chambers of US Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — may raise concerns at this stage.
The chairpersons and ranking members of the two committees can convey at this time their intention to put a “hold” on the proposed sale, which essentially means they are opposed to the deal as proposed and either want changes in it or block it.
This information pre-notification discussion started in early January, according to people in the know.
Both committees — the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — have an unspecified number of days to raise concerns and convey their intention to put a hold on the deal.
If the administration fails to allay their concerns or is indifferent to them, the State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees the sale of American weapons to international allies and partners, will go ahead and notify Congress — directly to Speaker of the House and Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. Lawmakers have a statutory period of 15, 30 or 45 days (depending on the size of the deal and the purchasing country) to approve it by doing nothing or oppose it by passing a resolution.