Indian Navy is operating many of its warships without helicopters on board
Lt Gen. B.S. Pawar (retd)
Throughout most of the 20th century, India’s naval priorities were essentially focussed on containing Pakistan and securing the maritime approaches to Indian territorial waters – this kept India’s naval outlook confined to its own waters.
However, India’s economic growth since the Nineties, growing domestic interests and desire to be a major power finally led the navy to expand its outlook to the wider Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and today it is even looking at the Asia-Pacific, given the developments in that region, thus aspiring to be a truly blue water navy.
Accordingly, the navy’s long-term maritime capabilities perspective plan has identified a mix of two major roles for the force; one the traditional blue water capability and two to effectively counter threats closer to the coast. Considering the expanse of the Indian maritime area of interest in the IOR, providing maritime security by carrying out 24×7 Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) is an enormous task.
Hence, in this entire maritime strategy the navy’s Fleet Air Arm is expected to play a very significant role — in fact the centrepiece of navy’s modernisation scheme revolves around the acquisition of aircraft carriers along with state-of-the-art aircraft including helicopters and UAVs to operate from them to ensure 24×7 ISR in the Indian Ocean. While progress has been made in the acquisition of an aircraft carrier Vikramaditya and its associated platforms like the MiG-29K and state-of-the-art ISR platform like the P8I Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance – Anti Submarine Aircraft (MR ASW), there has been virtually no movement on the Helicopter front. The result is that the fourth largest navy in the world is operating majority of its warships without the critical component of helicopters on board, a major operational void.
The foundation of the Indian Navy’s Fleet Air arm was laid in 1953 with the induction of Sealand amphibians and commissioning of the first naval air station, INS Garuda, at Kochi on 11 May 1953. The first air squadron of Indian Navy – INAS 550 (Flying Fish), was established in June 1959 comprising Sealand Amphibians, Firefly Target Towing Aircraft and subsequently the HT2 Primary Trainers.
Fighters were first inducted in 1958 (Vampire Aircraft) as part of the Jet Training Flight at Sulur Air Force Station to train pilots for fighter flying operations and the first carrier borne fighter squadron INAS 300 (White Tigers) comprising Sea Hawk aircraft was commissioned on July 1960. This was followed by the raising of carrier-based anti-submarine warfare and reconnaissance squadron INAS 310 (Cobras) consisting of Alize aircraft in January 1961. This was also a very significant year for the naval air arm in view of the acquisition of India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, formerly HMS Hercules.
Vikrant’s initial air wing consisted of the British Hawker Sea Hawk fighter bombers and French Alize anti-submarine aircraft later replaced by Sea Harriers. The Search and Rescue flight for Vikrant was formed in 1964 with the induction of Chetak helicopters produced indigenously under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Acknowledging the need to have at least one carrier available at all times, a second carrier INS Viraat (HMS Hermes) was acquired from the British Navy in 1987, thereby realising the Indian Navy’s vision of operating two Fleet Carriers. The Vikrant was decommissioned in 1997 and the Viraat in March this year with its integral Sea Harriers having been phased out earlier last year leaving the Indian Navy with the lone carrier, the Vikramaditya.
Over the years, the naval air arm has grown from a modest force to a full-fledged operational arm with an inventory of approximately 180 aircraft of all types to include fighters, helicopters, maritime reconnaissance aircraft and UAVs with the capability to support the entire spectrum of maritime operations covering all dimensions of naval warfare. The navy’s air arm operates from aircraft carriers, ships and a large number of naval airfields located across the Indian littorals.
In May 2013, the naval aviation marked 60 years of its existence with the commissioning of its Air Squadron (Black Panthers) equipped with MiG-29K fighter jets for carrier-borne operations — 45 MiG 29Ks have been inducted. This was followed by the induction of Boeing P-81 Poseidon MR-ASW aircraft equipped with a sophisticated and comprehensive sensor suite capable of providing maritime domain information over extended ranges – eight P8Is have already been inducted and four more have been contracted for. The aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, (formally the Admiral Gorshkov), a 44570 tonne carrier ship capable of operating state-of-the-art fighter aircraft like the MiG 29K was formally inducted in 2015. This acquisition marks a new phase in India’s quest to become a true-blue water navy and is likely to have generated more than a passing interest within the PLA Navy and across the rest of the continent.
The 37,000-tonne aircraft carrier IAC-1 named Vikrant is presently under construction at Cochin Shipyard and is likely to be commissioned in 2019. It is slated to be armed with the naval version of the LCA fighter aircraft being produced by HAL. However, as per reports the navy is not happy with its performance with regard to carrier-borne operations and is stated to be looking for other alternatives.
In fact, there are issues affecting the MIG 29K aircraft operations off the Vikramaditya as well related to structural and fly by wire issues, which have been taken up at the highest level by the government with Russia and are expected to be resolved soon. The indigenously produced Kiran (jet fighter trainer) which was being used for training has also been phased out following the induction of 17 Haw-132 jet trainers. The Kirans were part of the elite Naval Aerobatic Display Team — ‘The Sagar Pawans’.
In the Long Range Maritime Reconnaissance stream, eight Tupolev Tu-142 aircraft which entered service in 1988 (one of the largest aircraft with four engines) were ceremoniously retired a few days back. These aircraft operated from INS Rajali and INS Hansa due to long runway requirements.
In addition, the five IL 38 aircraft have been refurbished with the Sea Dragon radar for extended maritime reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. In the Medium Range category, the navy operates the HAL-built Dornier aircraft which continues to meet the surveillance and reconnaissance requirements of the navy — these are equipped with a radar and datalink for real time monitoring of the littoral waters.
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 Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) to Electronic Warfare, Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Search and Rescue (SAR). Presently, the Indian Navy operates a helicopter fleet consisting of the Sea King (ASW), Kamov 28 and 31 (ASW) 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 and their numbers inadequate with most of them needing replacement/upgrades. 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 it may continue to procure limited numbers for employment as multi-role utility platforms; 16 Dhruvs are now part of the naval fleet. Their main problem continues to remain the time intensiveness of blade folding. The Kamov-31 airborne early warning (AEW) helicopters acquired from Russia in the Nineties have proved to be a versatile platform for airborne operations at sea – more numbers are likely to be inducted. The Ka-31 is a very versatile platform currently operating off the Vikramaditya.
Upgrades of the 10 Ka-28 ASW helicopters have been pending for a long time for various reasons, but finally India and Russia have inked a deal worth USD 310 million to upgrade them – the upgrade involves engine overhaul and fitment with state of art sensors and avionics. As per reports the upgrade is likely to be completed in 42 months.
The navy’s UAV inventory consists of the Heron and Searcher Mk-11 UAV’s similar to the army and air force but these are limited in numbers to just three units and are woefully inadequate to meet even a fraction of the surveillance requirement. Plans are afoot to induct more numbers in the near future. The current force of UAVs has been successfully integrated with Fleet operations and can be controlled by the ships. As per reports the navy is also seriously looking at the induction of rotary UAV’s a trend worldwide – Northrop Grumman’s ‘Fire Scout’ is one such option. The HAL’s attempt to build a rotary UAV based on a Chetak helicopter has not borne fruit despite the long-elapsed period and hence the requirement to look outside.
Future Growth/ Plan
The Indian Navy for long has aspired for a three carrier fleet with a carrier task force positioned on each seaboard and the third carrier held in reserve. The induction of the refurbished INS Vikramaditya, fitted with the latest sensors and missiles will give India the ability to project raw naval power in its extended neighbourhood. It will be joined hopefully by India’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier IAC-1 (INS Vikrant), a 37,000 tonne ship by 2019.
Like the Vikramaditya this indigenous Vikrant will be equipped with a short take-off barrier arrested design (STOBAR), but will field a slightly smaller air wing in terms of numbers. As per reports there are plans for a second home built aircraft carrier IAC-11, which is expected to be larger and more formidable than its predecessor. Presently, it is unclear whether the carrier will be conventionally or nuclear propelled, however, its larger size and more efficient launch systems will enable it to field an aircraft wing that is superior both in size and diversity – action in this direction has already been initiated. It is expected that the Cochin Shipyard with their experience of IAC-1 should be able to deliver the second carrier with greater alacrity. In view of the above one can expect the Indian Navy to boast of three operational carrier groups in the near future.
The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Navy) is presently under development. The first prototype flew its first sortie on 27 Apr 12 and it is presently being progressed towards Ski-Jump trials at the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) being developed at Goa. However, there are apprehensions in some quarters whether these aircraft will be able to operate from carrier decks. Notwithstanding that, the LCA (Navy) together with the MiG 29K would form the main carrier-borne fighter component of the navy in the near future.
The navy suffers from a massive gap in its ASW capabilities. There has been no sizeable acquisition in over a decade to boost its helicopter fleet with a requirement of over 200 helicopters across different categories. The navy has been progressing a case for the acquisition of multirole helicopters (NMRH project) to replace its ageing fleet of Sea King Mk 42. It is understood that the acquisition of 16 Sikorsky’s S-70B helicopters has been cleared with an option for another eight. This is a very positive development and will go a long way in modernising the obsolete helicopter fleet, though the numbers required in this category are approximately 100 plus. The navy along with the army is also closely monitoring the HAL proposed joint venture for the 10-12 tonne class multirole helicopter project – a mock-up of the same was displayed by HAL during the recently concluded Aero India Show.
In addition, the navy is urgently looking at replacing its Chetak fleet including the MATCH. In this regard, a request for proposal (RFP) was issued in October 2014 for 56 x twin engine, 4.5 Ton Naval Utility helicopters (NUH) to Indian private industries as well as global players ranging from Boeing, Bell and Sikorsky to Kamov and Eurocopter with the prime aim of ‘Make in India’. While a lot of hype was generated regarding this project during the 2015 Aero India Show, there has been no significant movement since, despite Aero India 2017 also having gone past. The navy has been steadily adding ships to its fleet and has approximately 150 warships, but with less than one third of the required number of helicopters available, a large segment of these warships perforce have to operate without the critical helicopter component. This is a matter of serious concern and needs to be addressed on priority.
To acquire a formidable and sturdy defence capability, the fleet air arm must serve as a veritable sword arm of the Indian Navy. This stems from global cognition of aviation component of a fleet as an invaluable tool for power projection. Current and future projects ranging from acquisition of aircraft carriers and aerial platforms to fitment of most modern and state-of-the-art equipment on board aerial platforms, should be in consonance with the envisaged growth of the navy and the challenges it is likely to face in the future. The Naval Aviation will have to grow in a balanced form in the coming decade to be the net security provider in the IOR.