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Italy is blocking India’s quest for Predator-C Avenger Armed Drones

The Supreme Court on Thursday allowed Italian marine Salvatore Girone to return to his country after the central government supported his plea on “humanitarian grounds”. This is quite a turn-around from the BJP as it had strongly opposed the release of Girone and the other Italian marine, Massimiliano Latorre accused of killing two fishermen from Kerala in 2012.

While the official reason proffered is “on humanitarian grounds”, the underlying reason has more to do with Italy’s blocking of India’s entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). In October last year, Italy had vetoed India’s application to join the 34-member missile and UAV technology control committee, despite the United States supporting India’s case. Decisions to admit new members to MTCR must be approved unanimously, which allowed Italy to block India’s entry. Even though the issue of Italian marines was never raised, diplomatic sources had confirmed that it was the sub-text of the Italian veto.

MTCR controls exports of goods and technologies for rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kg to a range of at least 300 km, and on equipment, software, and technology for such systems. Being a non-signatory to MTCR means that the US or any other MTCR member country cannot export a modern armed UAV to India.

India has been keen to acquire armed UAVs from the US, and on September 24, 2015, Indian Air Force had written a letter to US company, General Atomics saying it wanted to purchase the Predator-C Avenger drone. The Avenger can fly for 18 hours, carry 3,500 pounds of munitions and reach an altitude of 50,000 feet, and is thus listed as Category I export item under the MTCR.

Earlier this month, in preparation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June visit to Washington, Indian officials had again broached the topic of importing armed UAVs from the US with American officials. The conversation, according to sources, was a non-starter as India is not a member of the MTCR. This could be fixed in October, when the next full plenary meeting of the MTCR is likely to take place in South Korea.

Even when India joins the MTCR, exporting armed drones to India – which can be potentially used to strike at targets inside Pakistan – will not be an easy decision for the US. India doesn’t use air power, including helicopter gunships, on its own territory while fighting domestic insurgencies and this rules out the use of armed drones as well. If these armed drones are meant to be used against Pakistan, selling them to India would be a huge call for the US to take. The US State Department would need to approve the sale and then inform the US Congress, which will review the transfer. A US State Department policy issued last year on selling armed drones to allies underlined the sensitivity of such sales.

But those questions arise only after India becomes a member of the MTCR. Releasing the Italian marine is the first step towards becoming a member of the export control regime. The rest can now follow.

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