Indian Navy to buy Seahawk helicopters from US, plans next paws in Indian Ocean
Defence & Diplomacy

Indian Navy to buy Seahawk helicopters from US, plans next paws in Indian Ocean

A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met US Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Singapore on November 14, India issued a letter of request (LoR) to the US government for the purchase of 24 MH-60 R Seahawk multirole helicopters for the Navy.

To be bought at an estimated cost of $1.88 billion and under a government-to-government deal, MH-60 R helicopters will be armed with top class anti-submarine capabilities like missiles and torpedoes. In fact, designed to operate from frigate, destroyer, cruisers, amphibious ship and aircraft carrier, the chopper is equipped for a range of missions including anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, search-and-rescue, naval gunfire support, surveillance, communications relay, logistics support and personal transfer and vertical replenishment.

Is MH-60R helicopter worthy of its purpose? From the US to Australia to Qatar to South Korea to Denmark—five countries are using the multi-role helicopter for their armed forces, while Mexico has placed an order for the purchase of eight Romeo helicopters and associated equipment at an estimated value of $1.2 billion in April, 2018. In India, acquisition of this multi-role helicopter has been pending since the first term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. However, given the challenges faced by India from assertive China which is increasingly strengthening its naval power in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi will ill afford to give another missed opportunity to its force by not offering them technologically advanced defence platforms like MH-60 R helicopters at the time of their urgent requirement.

In fact, with choppers like MH-60 R helicopter in tow, Indian Navy wants to address some of critical operational necessities like minesweeping and anti-submarine warfare missions. The multi-mission helicopter is equipped with a Sonobuoy launcher system which is utilized for maritime patrol and ant-submarine warfare purposes. It is also equipped with a Raytheon AN/AQS-22 advanced airborne low-frequency (ALFS) dipping sonar. According to Jane’s, the long-delayed request to acquire the defence platforms, under the US Foreign Military Sales (USFMS) programme, will be signed within a year from the date of issue of the LoR. Around 2020, the anticipated delivery of the chopper will begin, Jane’s says in its report.

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Once, Sea King Mk42B/C and Ka-28 helicopters have worked as workhorse in the Indian Navy’s inventory. Both these platforms are aging and hence, they need immediate replacement. Acquired from British Westland Helicopters Ltd, Sea King Mk42B/C helicopters have been in the Indian Navy’s service since 1971. Less than 10 Sea King helicopters are operational now. From Godavari class frigates to Delhi class destroyers—all Indian manufactured war ships were once equipped with Sea King Mk42B/C helicopters. Similarly, Ka-28 helicopters, total 10 in numbers with the Indian Navy, were purchased from the then Soviet Union in the mid-80s.

Only four Ka-28 helicopters are in flying condition today. In 2016, then Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar had given go ahead signal for the upgrade of this anti-submarine warfare platform. Nonetheless, Indian Navy’s majority of frigates or destroyers are these days sailing in the high sea without support from Sea King or Ka-28 helicopters.

It is in this background, the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Acquisition Council(DAC) which is apex procurement body, had approved procurement of MH-60 R helicopters, being manufactured by Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin, a US-based defence equipment manufacturing company in August 2018. What is special with MH-60 R helicopters is its speed in climbing up and that too at the rate of 8.38 metre per second. These helicopters maximum and cruise speed are also 267-km per hour and 168-km per hour respectively, while the range is 834 km.

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In August itself, the DAC also approved purchase of 111 naval utility helicopters, to be built under the Make in India initiative by domestic private companies in joint venture with overseas equipment manufacturers. Since then several aviation majors like Russia’s Kamov, US’ Airbus and Bell and India’s HAL have joined the race for 111 naval utility helicopters. The Navy is currently seized with the process of evaluation and selection of these utility helicopters which will be built in joint venture with local partners.

Significantly with request for 24 MH-60 R helicopters in tow, the US-based defence companies have bagged as many as eight major defence projects from India. In fact, from C-17 Globemaster to C-130 J transport planes to P-81 maritime reconnaissance aircraft to M777 howitzers to Harpoon missiles to Apache and Chinook helicopters, Indian defence inventories are filled with US made defence platforms. Since 2008, India has signed more than 15 billion worth of arms deal with the US, indicating the robustness of India-US defence relationship.

Shankar Kumar is a Delhi-based diplomacy and strategic affairs journalist. He tweets at @shaanka

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