NEW DELHI • India is vying to become one of the first countries to import armed Predator Avenger drones from the United States, a move that would allow it to remotely drop a bomb on any square inch of Pakistan.
The unmanned aircraft manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems are sleek, fast, killing machines. From New Delhi, they could hunt militants across Pakistan, and become a strategic consideration in border stand-offs with China. If approved, the drones would also be another sign of the growing defence ties between Washington and New Delhi.
India was the second-largest buyer of US arms last year, up from virtually nothing five years ago. The Avengers also represent a small but significant tilt in the strategic dynamics of a region with three nuclear powers and about 40 per cent of the world's population.
"It's actually quite amazing how quickly the Indian-US relations have developed," said Mr Siemon Wezeman, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a group that monitors arms transfers. "Within a few years, India has embraced US weapons" and America is now "supplying India with very advanced military technology", he said.
On Sept 22, the US in a statement backed India's membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime, a prerequisite for buying the drones. Two days later, India's Air Force sent a letter to San Diego-based General Atomics saying it wanted to purchase the Avenger, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg. Air Force officials declined to comment on the letter.
That suggestion alone is enough to raise tensions between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars in the past and are home to the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenals since 2010.
The Avengers can fly for 18 hours, carry 1,588kg of munitions and reach an altitude of 15km.
"The drones, which can reach anywhere in Pakistan, obviously can create, can heighten the tensions, and increase the risk of a conflagration," said Mr Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant-general and an Islamabad-based defence analyst.
India's drone inventory includes mostly surveillance-only models made by Israel. With armed drones, India could be more likely to strike in Pakistan to retaliate after terrorist attacks that New Delhi's leaders pin on their neighbour - something they have avoided doing with fighter jets that carry the risk of downed pilots.
"Once people across know they can be struck from the air without India thinking too much there would be a pilot who may get shot down, that sends a deterrent," said Mr Manmohan Bahadur, a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi and retired air vice-marshal of the Air Force.
Pakistan has at least one drone series capable of carrying out strikes. They are thought to be developed by China and more limited in range and payload than the Avenger.
In the opposite direction, India has had a series of stand-offs with China. The more advanced capability of the Chinese military to respond to any strikes, though, makes the drone's presence more of a deterrent to both sides to tamp down on disputes.