Indian navy is preparing a fresh case for buying new multi-role helicopters (MRH) after failed attempts to fill a key area of deficiency in its capabilities, a senior navy officer said.
The MRH is expected to be the future mainstay of the navyâ€™s anti-submarine, anti-ship warfare and airborne early-warning capabilities that have seen a worrying and persistent deterioration over the last decade.
The new push for 24 MRH worth over Rs 10,000 crore is aimed at replacing the Sea King 42/42A helicopters that were retired almost around two decades ago.
â€œThe replacement is overdue. It was around 15 years ago that the navy moved a case to get new MRH. Itâ€™s a very crucial operational requirement,â€ said vice admiral (retd) Shekhar Sinha, a naval aviator and former Western Naval Command chief.
The Sea King 42/42A models came with aircraft carrier INS Viraat. Bought from the UK, the Viraat was commissioned as the navyâ€™s second carrier in 1987 and retired last year.
The navy came very close to hammering out a deal for 16 Sikorsky S-70B Seahawks a year ago, but the negotiations fell through, forcing the project to return to the drawing board. The takeover of Sikorsky Aircraft by Lockheed Martin affected price negotiations as the defence ministryâ€™s commercial negotiation committee had to deal with a new management, navy sources said.
Shortage of MRH has forced the navy to ration its helicopter resources. â€œThe navy has to beg, borrow and steal to keep the show going,â€ Sinha said.
It is unclear at this stage what course the navy will take to purchase the new helicopters â€” whether it will go in for a government-to-government (G2G) deal or float a global tender.
Sources said the US administration has offered the S-70B Seahawk to India under a G2G deal, also known as the foreign military sales programme.
A G2G deal is a contract between two governments that does away with the need to float a tender. Such transactions may be complicated in their conception and execution but are more transparent to financial scrutiny.
Apart from MRH, the navy needs to invest thousands of crores to buy naval utility helicopters (NUH) and naval multi-role helicopters (NMRH).
The navy requires 111 NUH to replace its outdated fleet of French-designed Chetak choppers. A fresh effort to buy these ship-borne utility helicopters got underway in October, with the defence ministry according its â€œacceptance of necessityâ€ (AoN) to a Rs 21,738-crore programme to replace the Chetaks.
The AoN is only the first step towards buying a weapon or platform in a complex acquisition procedure that can sometimes take up to a decade to translate into a final contract.
â€œI donâ€™t think AoN is a big deal. There are several programmes that were granted AoN years ago but we are nowhere close to buying those weapons and systems,â€ said another senior navy officer on condition of anonymity.
Whatâ€™s worrying is that the majority of Indiaâ€™s 140 warships are operating without integral utility helicopters. These five-tonne class choppers are used for several purposes, including search and rescue operations, medical evacuation, anti-piracy and anti-terrorism operations, communication duties, humanitarian assistance and surveillance.
The US, European and Russian suppliers are expected to compete for the NUH programme by stitching up alliances with Indian firms under the governmentâ€™s â€˜strategic partnershipâ€™ model.
Sixteen of the choppers will be bought in flyaway condition from a foreign military contractor, and the remaining 95 will be locally built in partnership with an Indian firm.
The navy had released two requests for information for 123 NMRH and 111 NUH this August, seeking details to build the helicopters in the country.
Naval helicopters come with special modifications such as foldable blades for shipboard storage, wheeled landing gear and airframe resistant to salt water corrosion.
Building capability can take years and if decisions are not taken on time, the military suffers. If India were to clinch the NUH deal today, the last of the 111 twin-engine choppers will still take 13 years to arrive.
An older plan to import 56 NUH was scrapped as the government wanted to pursue the programme under the Make in India banner. Besides, the navy had modified its requirements.
Similarly, a previous NMRH tender for 126 helicopters was withdrawn to power the Make in India plan. The NMRH project is expected to move forward under the â€˜strategic partnershipâ€™ model at a later juncture. The NMRH mission range covers anti-submarine warfare, anti-ship warfare, electronic warfare and carrying marine commandos â€” roles performed by the navyâ€™s Sea King 42B/42C variants.
Naval helicopter programmes have to be accelerated to overcome shortcomings and keep the force mission ready, said BS Randhawa, a retired vice admiral.
â€œRemember submarine and surface activity, including Chinese presence, has risen sharply in the Indian Ocean region,â€ Randhawa said.
â€œIf a warship is not armed with choppers, itâ€™s a serious capability gap. These choppers are a potent part of a vessel in terms of extending its range and overall capabilities for anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare,â€ a top navy officer said.
The navy also operates a mix of 20 Russian-made Kamov-28 and Kamov-31 helicopters for anti-submarine warfare and electronic warfare respectively. The Kamov-28 fleet is undergoing a midlife upgrade at a cost of Rs 2,000 crore.