Multi-Role Helicopters are an essential part of any modern naval fleet. They have a critical role in the fleet’s anti-submarine capabilities. The Indian Navy’s capabilities in the area of anti-submarine warfare is limited by its lack of modern helicopters to undertake the crucial role. It’s after more than a decade that we seem to have reached a point where we can expect the MH 60 R Romeo of Lockheed Martin to be procured. The author analyses the Navy’s requirements, current holdings and the MH 60R helicopter’s capabilities.
In any operation at sea today modern Multi – Role Helicopters (MRH) are crucial eyes, ears and long arms of the Fleet. The only platform that can strike fear in a submarine Captain’s mind is the Fleet’s integral air element of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopters. For India, with neighbours who are consolidating their Navies with potent submarines, lack of a capable MRH in adequate numbers is a critical operational capability gap in the vital area of Indian Ocean Region (IOR), more so because the Chinese presence in the IOR has risen sharply in terms of both submarine and surface activity.
This vulnerability was starkly visible at last year’s annual cooperative naval exercise, ‘Malabar’ where the Indian Navy operated alongside the US and the Japanese Navies in the Philippine Sea. One of the key elements of this exercise was the ‘Joint Anti-Submarine Warfare Work-Up’, where the Indian Navy found itself vastly handicapped. While the US and Japanese Navies strutted around their modern fleet of ASWs in terms of the erstwhile Sikorsky, now Lockheed Martin’s MH-60R ‘Romeo’ model and S-70B Seahawks, the Indian Navy had to be content with the 1960 era Chetak helicopters for ‘Search and Rescue’ operations.
The last attempt to acquire this class of helicopters was thwarted in 2017, after nine years of deliberate efforts, when negotiations broke off with US manufacturer Sikorsky over differences in pricing with the procurement process being finally foreclosed. The helicopter selected was Sikorsky’s S-70B Seahawk, wherein the proposal was to acquire sixteen helicopters initially, with an option for eight more.
Under these circumstances when India’s integral naval ASW capability is at an all-time low, the recent US approval for the sale of 24 Naval Multi-Role MH-60 ‘Romeo’ helicopters to India in a Government to Government deal has come at the right moment and as a great relief to the Navy, though the actual contract is likely to be inked later this year.
Present Status: Naval Helicopter Fleet
While the Indian shipyards continue to roll out stealth frigates and guided missile destroyers with the latest radars, sensors and weapon systems, their hangars remain bereft of the most crucial component, the helicopters, especially the ASW category. Helicopters form a key element of a naval fleet at sea due to its ability to easily operate from frigate size ships and carry out diverse roles from ASW to Electronic Warfare, Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Search and Rescue.
Presently The Indian Navy operates a helicopter fleet consisting of the Sea King-42B and Kamov-28 ASW helicopters, the Kamov-31 AEW helicopter and the modified Chetak-MATCH (Mid Air Torpedo Carrying Helicopter). In addition, they have a fleet of Chetak helicopters for shipborne operations. These helicopters are old vintage and in inadequate numbers, with most of them needing replacement and upgrade.
The HAL manufactured Dhruv (naval variant) was inducted into the air arm in March 2002. However, the Navy found the Dhruv unsuitable for its role as an ASW platform, though they may continue to procure limited numbers for employment as multi-role utility platforms- 16 Dhruvs are now part of the naval fleet. The Kamov-31 AEW helicopters acquired from Russia in the 1990s have proved to be a versatile platform for airborne operations at sea but their numbers are limited. However, the main workhorse’s in the ASW category, the British Sea King-42B and Russian Kamov-28 are old and lack availability of spares to keep them flying and their much required replacement process has floundered for over a decade plus.
Presently, the Navy has a highly limited inventory of 12 Sea King-42B and 10 Kamov-28 ASW helicopters to look after the 150 plus warships, leaving a critical void in this vital segment of ASW. In fact, the Kamov-28 ASW helicopters held are currently undergoing an upgrade under a $294 million deal inked with Russian Helicopters in 2017. Some of these helicopters have already been upgraded. The upgrade involves engine overhaul and fitment with state of art sensors and avionics. The Navy requires at least 123 Naval MRH and had released a global request for information in August 2017. As usual, no progress has been made on this critical project till now, due to bureaucratic lethargy in failing to finalise the ‘Strategic Partnership Model’ under the ‘Make in India policy’.
Case for MH-60R ‘Romeo’ MRH
Keeping in mind the dire need and critical requirement of the Navy for helicopters that can undertake missions ranging from anti-submarine operations to fire support and early warning at sea, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared the procurement of 24 MH-60R Seahawk multi-role helicopters in August 2018. Thereafter, in November the Government made a formal request to the US Government for the purchase of these helicopters under the ‘Foreign Military Sales’ (FMS) route.
Accordingly, a ‘Letter of Request’ was given to the US Government for the acquisition of these helicopters as an urgent requirement. The US in April this year has approved the sale of 24 multi-role MH-60 ‘Romeo’ Seahawk helicopters to India at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion, under the FMS route–these Sirkorsky/Lockheed Martin-built helicopters will replace India’s ageing fleet of British-Westland Sea King Mk 42B and Russian Kamov Ka-28 helicopters.
The twin-engine MH-60R is the world’s most advanced maritime helicopter armed with Hellfire Missiles, MK-54 Torpedoes and precision kill rockets for potent ASW capabilities and is currently deployed with the US Navy as the primary anti-submarine warfare/anti-surface weapon system for open ocean and littoral zones. According to industry experts, it is the most capable naval helicopter available today, designed to operate from frigates, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers, with the capability to handle numerous contacts in confined spaces, as well as for open-water operations.
MH-60 Romeo Seahawks will add lethal capabilities to the Indian Navy, which indeed is the need of the hour, given the aggressive behaviour of China in the Indian Ocean region. According to US Naval Air System Command, the MH-60R Seahawk missions are anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, surveillance, communications relay, combat search and rescue, naval gunfire support and logistics support.
The helicopter has a fully integrated mission system which builds complete ‘Situational Awareness’ and ‘Actionable Knowledge’ enabling target engagement both close-in and over the horizon. The MH-60R is also fitted with a suitable ‘Cargo Hook’ for vertical replenishment missions. The helicopter has dual controls and is equipped with a digital integrated glass cockpit. More than 300 of these helicopters are in operation with the Australian, Danish, Saudi and Qatar Navies including the US and have accumulated over 60000 flight hours.
In addition to the helicopters, the purchase will include a multitude of support and embedded equipment like engines, multi-mode radars, sonobuoys, weapon systems and other essential associated equipment. In addition, the US will provide night vision devices, high-frequency radios and identification friend or foe transponders as part of the deal. India will also receive personnel and equipment training, as well as support for engineering, technical and logistics support services.
MH-60R Seahawk Characteristics
The Seahawk is powered by two General Electric T-700 turbo-shaft engines with a rating of 1425 kW. It has a maximum speed of 267 km/hour, a range of 834 km and a service ceiling of 3435 metres. With regards to weapon systems, the helicopter can be equipped with a range of weapons on the four weapon stations, with the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles for anti-surface missions and the ATK MK-54 active/passive lightweight torpedoes for ASW- it can also be mounted with a 7.62mm machine gun for self-defence.
The helicopter is fitted with a modern and advanced Electronic Warfare (EW) suite and state of art sensors. For anti-submarine operations, it is equipped with a Sonobuoy Launcher and an advanced Airborne Low-Frequency Dipping Sonar. The MH-60R is also fitted with a detecting/tracking system which includes a FLIR and laser rangefinder. The MH-60R Seahawk incorporates all such features which enhance survivability. It can withstand small arms fire and medium calibre high explosive projectiles and has a self-sealing fuel tank. The flight controls have dual redundancy, with the upper controls and hub being ballistically tolerant. The helicopter is fitted with high energy absorbing landing gear and its high mass components are retained in case of a high impact crash. The survivability features of the MH-60R rank amongst the best in helicopters.
The Navy is inducting four to five warships every year, in tune with its plan to become a 212 strong warship force by 2027 and has virtually run out of the MRHs to operate from their decks to detect, track and kill enemy submarines. Most of the warships have been operating with a Chetak helicopter instead, for multi-purpose duties, a helicopter that is even older than the limited Sea King helicopters held and is itself awaiting replacement for over a decade.
The critical shortage of helicopters has emerged as the most alarming operational gap in the Navy today. Given the critical situation, the US approval for the sale of 24 MH-60R Seahawk under the FMS route could not have come a day later – the contract for the same needs to be signed at the earliest. Navy’s requirement is of 123 Naval Multi-Role Helicopters (NMRH) for which a global Request for Information (RFI) was released in August 2017. However, despite the critical operational situation, the NMRH programme has not progressed as fast as the Navy would have liked and currently runs the risk of getting stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire if a clear strategy is not evolved.
Under the circumstances the MH-60R Romeo Seahawk is a suitable NMRH platform. Going in for 24 of these next-generation submarine hunter and anti-surface warfare helicopters is an excellent plan. It would be practical to pursue additional induction of theses helicopters under the Strategic Partnership Model of the Defence Procurement Procedures.
Lt Gen B S Pawar (Retd)
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