Even as India launches stealth frigates and guided missile destroyers from its shipyards to patrol the Indian Ocean, the country has precious few modern helicopters equipped with sensors and weapons capable of detecting Chinese submarines patrolling its waters.
In this year’s annual cooperative naval exercise called Malabar, the Indian navy will operate alongside and be exposed to modern U.S. and Japanese rotorcraft equipped for anti-submarine warfare (ASW). The exercise began June 7 and will run until June 16 in the Philippine Sea.
Chinese forces will be watching the exercise closely. One of the key elements of this year’s Malabar is the joint anti-submarine warfare (ASW) work-up, a growing concern for India as it faces potent submarines of the Chinese navy that regularly deploy in the Indian Ocean region.
Indian and U.S. Navy officials recently met at the highest levels, with Adm. Sunil Lanba, chairman of the Indian Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Naval Staff visiting the U.S. mid-March. A visit or two to the U.S. is part of every Indian naval chief’s tour of duty. However, coming in the run-up to Malabar, the visit timing was noteworthy for both countries.
Indian shipyards continue to roll out stealth frigates and guided missile destroyers with no helicopters to fill their hangars. Having commanded ships like the SNF-class destroyers, he is in a position to recognize his navy’s blunted anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability.
In June 2017, after almost a decade of discussions, the direct commercial sale of 16 multi-role helicopters was withdrawn because the Indian Navy and Sikorsky — now owned by Lockheed Martin — couldn’t reach an agreement on price. Winds of “Make in India” and strategic partnership have swept ambitious plans for a naval multi-role helicopter and naval utility helicopter back into dusty files at the ministry of defense.
Even as the Indian navy’s integral ASW helicopter fleet shrinks, China continues to flex its undersea muscles in and around the Indian Ocean. News reports indicate Chinese forces shadowed the naval flotilla headed to Guam as it sailed through the South China Sea — a regular practice in waters to which China stakes a claim.
U.S. and Japanese helicopters will be on display again at Malabar, but while Indian naval pilots will get to see them in action, there is no active program that could introduce such advanced technologies to the Indian navy.
Officers who did not want to be named admitted that India’s naval integral ASW capability is at an all-time low. From past experience, the slight chance of present processes to deliver helicopters through the direct commercial sales (DCS) route within an acceptable timeframe is not lost on anybody at the ministry of defense (MOD).
During his visit to the U.S., Adm. Lanba was shown the Sikorsky MH-60R “Romeo” model Seahawk, which was on offer by Lockheed Martin as the Indian navy’s new multi-role helicopter. Sikorsky, before being bought by Lockheed, offered the S-70B Seahawk for the same program.
Because the Romeo offer was through a foreign military sale (FMS), the Indian MOD found it incompatible with the DCS case, and the Romeo was benched. Seven years down the road, Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin have merged. Though Sikorsky lost the S-70B deal, it looks like the MH-60R is back in play.
Few Indian helicopters have been successfully introduced through the DCS route. Most operational Indian navy rotorcraft were bought through the government-to-government route.
The Kamov-31 airborne early warning helicopters came with the Russian “Krivak” class stealth frigates. Six Sikorsky UH-3H utility helicopters came with INS Jalashwa, the former USS Trenton. The weapons for Indian Navy’s P-8Is that fly over Guam today came through a FMS contract. The sale of aircraft was through a DCS contract sealed with Boeing on Jan. 1, 2009.
During Malabar 2018, U.S. MH-60Rs will strut their stuff while the Indian navy stands-by with Chetaks, based on the 1960s-era French Aérospatiale Alouette III for search and rescue.
The Indian military services and MOD have scored several self-goals by writing detailed procurement manuals and procedures that hang around their necks like millstones.
The navy would do well to have a close look at the Romeo’s performance this Malabar. Extrapolation of sensor performance in the Pacific to the tropical waters of Indian Ocean will not be flawless. But this is a fact the navy knows well from the 2011 field evaluation trials of the MRH, which included a demonstration on a U.S. Navy MH-60R at Patuxent River, Maryland.
Past and present Indian navy helicopter pilots who have stared at the bottom of the barrel for far too long hope the replacements come soon, whatever the make or route.
The incumbent government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a mandate to make tough decisions even though an election is looming. Recent reports indicate a sizeable number of Chetak/Cheetah likely will be replaced by Ka-226 helicopters from Russia. The Indian navy has not been a beneficiary of this program either, though the platform is meant for utility role.