Guest Column | Swan Song

Indian Navy decommissions Sea Harrier VSTOL fighters

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (Retd)

Indian naval strategists with combat aviation acumen have long understood the role of fighter aircraft in the context of overall maritime security in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This has been proven time and again since 1960. When the Indian Ocean witnessed relative calm under the umbrella of balance of power during Cold War, the only serious security challenge to Indian landmass was from the north-western neighbourhood which had already been well-established.

The government in power appreciated the virtue of self-help and maintained the policy of not being part of any military alliance despite much allurement. The major powers present in the IOR were non-residents and, therefore, for India it was necessary to have maritime security mechanism of protection of own national interest and that of IOR. Since maritime domain has vast expanse over which lies our economic interests, the governments have laboured to build a capable and strong navy. Countries have to deal with their immediate threats without having to wait for doubtful military support from elsewhere.

British Raj had deprived India of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and, therefore, at the time of Independence the country was handed out relatively poorly-equipped armed forces but a notorious neighbour. As far as the navy was concerned, her immediate role was defined to protect the sea lanes of communication in order to keep the energy routes secure given the proximity of western neighbour to the energy and trade transit routes in the IOR.

Sea Harrier could take-off and land vertically and do combinations of all types of take-off and landing between vertical and fully conventional envelope
Sea Harrier could take-off and land vertically and do combinations of all types of take-off and landing between vertical and fully conventional envelope

Given the fact that our economy has been on an upward trajectory ever since, successive governments have found it necessary to build the capability of the navy and therefore what we see today is a product of vision of our political and maritime leaders. That is how began the process of acquiring the first aircraft carrier Vikrant in the Sixties and embarked fighter and anti-submarine aircraft. The fighter aircraft was the Sea Hawk from the proven design house of Hawker Siddley of the UK.

It was a small Hunter in many ways. Though the British had phased it out, it met our need of preventing any attempt to disrupt the SLOCs far and wide. It was the only aircraft carrier east of Suez making our country the only one with pan IOR reach. Our air technical teams were handpicked and it is to their credit that the last Sea Hawk flew till as late as 1983, roughly for 22 years.

The government also permitted the navy to buy a hangar full of old Sea Hawks and spares from the then West Germany. The pilots of 300 Squadron, the White Tigers as they are called, surprised the Royal Navy by their flying skills. Lt Cdr B.D. Law was the first Commanding officer. It was during the passage of Vikrant from the UK to India that then Lt Cdr Ram Tahiliani became the first Indian Navy pilot to deck land the Sea Hawk. He later on rose to become the chief of naval staff and Governor of Sikkim.

The Sea Hawk had its limitation as far as air defence against intruding aircraft was concerned. It had 20mm Hispano gun which was good enough to bring down a maritime patrol aircraft. Maritime reconnaissance by MR aircraft is prerequisite to all maritime operations. In the vast expanse of ocean, the presence or the absence of a fleet or flotilla has to be established before punitive actions can be planned. The Indian Navy’s philosophy hinged around neutralising the MR aircraft of the enemy even before an action could be commenced by an enemy surface action groups.

With the passage of time the Indian Ocean witnessed the presence of the US Navy on near permanent basis. The US chose Pakistan as an ally to prevent the Soviet desire to venture into warm waters of the Arabian Sea. In the process it armed Pakistan with weapon platforms ignoring the fact that those systems would be used against India in their quest for annexing Jammu and Kashmir. It only strengthened Indian strategists’ view that self-help was the only way to protect our own national interest and therefore the policy of strategic autonomy. The end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet empire emboldened Pakistan further with the continuous flow of sophisticated platforms and systems from the US. It has continued under the aid programme for global war on terror.

As far back as 1974, naval aviation planners foresaw the developments in the IOR and assessed the necessity to replace the existing aircraft carrier Vikrant and nearing obsolescence fighter jets, the Sea Hawk. The US and French were in the process of providing the PC 3 Orion’s and the Atlantique MR aircraft to Pakistan. This called for a relook at our own fighter asset since the Orion and Atlantique would give Pakistan the ability to snoop and strike Indian ships at much longer ranges.

China was emerging on the maritime front and her complicity with Pakistan was in the news. The Vikrant was also operating beyond her designated life thanks to the superior engineering skills of our officers and men. It was an opportunity at taking a quantum jump in carrier-borne aircraft and weapon technology. The Sky Hawk (A-4) aircraft was being considered as a replacement to the Sea Hawk. It is to the credit of naval aviation strategists who saw through the limitations of the Sky Hawk with respect to her residual life and technology as well as the residual life of the sole aircraft carrier Vikrant.

The opportunity was seized by selecting state-of-the-art Sea Harrier VSTOL fighter Reconnaissance and Strike aircraft as a replacement to the Sea Hawk which could operate from flat deck of Vikrant till such time a Ski Jump would be added to her or a different carrier was acquired. The Royal Navy was also in the process of inducting the Sea Harriers into service while the UK was still a major world power. This would make the Indian Navy contemporary.

The Sea Harrier would give the Indian Navy a true interceptor equipped with air to air missile, first time in the navy, both the rear aspect and all aspect types and an a true interception radar which was a first for the Indian armed forces (the Mirage 2000 was yet to be inducted in the air force). The year was 1982 when the first set of Indian Navy pilots led by then Cdr Arun Prakash (a Vir Chakra of 1971 war) and team of engineers were deputed to the United Kingdom for training. The rest is history.

The Sea Harrier was a technological wizard. It could take-off and land vertically and do combinations of all types of take-off and landing between vertical and fully conventional envelope. It suited the navy, since it precluded the necessity of strong winds on the deck of the aircraft carrier for a catapult launch which had restricted Sea Hawk operations in 1971 in the Bay of Bengal.

There was a price to pay though for this advance technology of the Sea Harrier. She was a challenging aircraft to fly, very unstable in the VSTOL regime requiring very high flying skills from a pilot. This resulted in more than the usual rejection rate of pilots and therefore not many could achieve fully operational status. For a few years, the navy operated two aircraft carriers Vikrant, which was fitted with 9 ¾ degrees Ski Jump and the Viraat (ex-Hermes of the RN) inducted in 1986, which necessitated dedicated training effort to meet the needs of two carriers.

All this while, the navy has had only one embarked fighter squadron which performed the task of air defence of the fleet, a task which was performed with professional skill during long embarked periods for over three decades. The vectoring-in forward flight (VIFF) gave this aircraft unique ability to out turn many fighters to achieve a kill with her Magic 1 and 2 air to air missiles as well as 30mm Aden guns. The aircraft carried total weapon load of approximately 5,000 lbs which was formidable. She also carried ESM and ECM pods. For reconnaissance, a pod was carried which had forward looking, panoramic and infra-red cameras.

During her prime, she intercepted the Orion, Atlantique, F-18 Super Hornet and possibly any aircraft that dared to close the fleet anywhere in the IOR. She was operationally deployed off Sri Lanka at the peak of Operation Jupiter and then during Operation Parakram which kept the Pakistani fleet virtually tied in their harbour. India had the capability to strike deep into enemy territory from seawards and draw out the ground forces of opponents from traditional theatres.

A training squadron of the Sea Harrier, 552, was commissioned in 2004 to relieve the 300 Squadron completely from Operational Flying training tasks. In fact, the training flight was already operating since 1989, as the B Flight of Indian Naval Air Squadron 551 which also operated Kiran aircraft in Fleet Requirement Unit role till replaced by the BAE Systems’ Hawks and moved to Visakhapattnam recently. The Sea Harrier underwent a mid-life upgrade in 2004 which increased her operational capability manifold providing the fleet with much needed punch against new inventories of our adversary. The ELTA Radar and compatible Derby beyond the visual range air to air missile changed the manner in which air combat was being fought. This effectively made this aircraft very potent against incoming fighter/ MR threat which could have used their long range air to surface missiles against our surface ships. This effectively ceased the occasional venturing of Pakistani Mirage III seawards on the western seaboard. Sea Harriers ruled the IOR skies for 33 long years!

By now the technology of VSTOL had virtually peaked and no further improvements could be incorporated to the aircraft. The era of VSTOL was very much nearing its culmination. The RN and RAF pooled in all their Harriers to form Joint Harrier Force and later phased it out from service. There was much debate in the Indian Navy and strategic community on the replacement of both the aircraft carrier Viraat and the fighter jet Sea Harrier. The Vikrant was decommissioned and we were left with a single carrier.

In the meanwhile a lot was happening in the South China Sea. The economic and military might of China was growing and challenging the supremacy of the US which has been the sole superpower since the collapse of Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The Chinese diplomatic overdrive and assertiveness is pushing towards the Indian Ocean. With the promulgation of Chinese Military Strategy paper 2015 and the declaration of Maritime Silk Route it was becoming clear that IOR could see decline in Indian dominance. Chinese hobnobbing with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Djibouti and Pakistan poses a serious challenge to the relative calm in the waters of IOR. Indian planners are sanguine of these developments.

It was time for India to extend her fleet operations far and wide to ensure security of SLOCs in the full expanse of the Indian Ocean, monitoring the most critical choke points in the IOR, i.e. Malacca Straits, Gulf of Aden and Straits of Hormuz through which transits our energy and bulk of trade. Naval aviation planners took a bold decision to choose a conventional and more capable aircraft to replace the Sea Harrier. It also necessitated a bigger carrier. The Russian offer of ex-Gorshkov, now Vikramaditya, met the requirement for the cost. This 45,000 plus tonnes carrier was fitted out with Ski Jump and arrestor wires to operate conventional aircraft. The aircraft chosen was MiG-29K supersonic fighters which are capable of short take off but arrested landing, STOBAR for short. The interception and strike ranges are far in excess of the Sea Harrier.

The ship arrived at her home port in Karwar on 7 January 2014. The sunset for VSTOL air defence was approaching and so was withdrawal from service of the aircraft carrier Viraat. From 2014 till 11 May 2016, both MiG-29K and Sea Harriers have been operating by 303 and 300 squadrons respectively. The Sea Harrier made a majestic appearance at the International Fleet Review in February 2016 off Vizag displaying her flexibility of operation.

On May 11 this year curtains came down for Sea Harrier VSTOL fighters after 33 years of yeoman service. The technical teams have done the country proud by keeping this maintenance intensive aircraft up in the air for 33 years. The degree of challenge of operating Sea Harriers can be judged by the fact that in these 33 years only 60 pilots and 52 engineers mastered the art of VSTOL. The 300 Squadron is now inducted with MiG-29K supersonic jets.

Very broadly, now the navy has two supersonic fighter jet squadrons giving the country the reach and numbers that it needs in the developing geopolitics of the IOR. The second aircraft carrier Vikrant being built at Kochi shipyard will be ready within a few years and two fighter squadrons could be deployed on two seaboards simultaneously. The LCA Navy is possibly some distance away, though the land-based ski jump trials are progressing and meeting the test criteria. The change of engine to GE 414 will make her a good platform.

India’s navy is on the threshold of managing the security of IOR on her own steam along with resident littoral states of this ocean. India already has Maritime Domain Awareness connectivity with Sri Lanka, Maldives, (possibly) Seychelles, Mauritius and Madagascar. The cooperation with Bangladesh and Myanmar will enhance the security architecture envelope. The fusion centre at Singapore adds to MDA.

With the US pivot to Indo Asia Pacific and China’s emergence in the IOR on the pretext of Maritime Silk Route accompanied with her assertiveness in the South China Sea, time is ripe for India to continue with the policy of strategic autonomy without joining any military alliance. The enhanced maritime air combat power has propelled India to construct her own security architecture which will be for and by the IOR littorals.

(The writer is a former FOC-in-C, Western Naval Command and a Sea Harrier pilot)



Flying the Sea Harrier

Flying the Sea HarrierIt was in April 1982 that Cdr Arun Prakash, the squadron commander-designate (later chief of naval staff) and I, a lieutenant, the flying instructor-designate of new Sea Harrier squadron, was deputed to the United Kingdom to learn to fly the machine and bring it back to India.

We first joined a Jet Provost flight of 79 Squadron at RAF Brawdy in Wales. It was UK orientation course to learn the flying and air traffic procedures. Also, getting used to instrument laid down procedures, radio telephony natter and the accent. The saving grace was that even the British pilots often found it difficult to decipher the accent of the controllers which depended upon their own native region within the UK!

During this syllabus flying, Cdr Arun Prakash ejected into a lake subsequent to an engine malfunction. He was fit as a fiddle thereafter. On completion we moved to RAF Wittering to the 233 OCU for the basic flying training on the RAF Harrier GR 3 along with RAF, RN and Spanish Navy pilots.

The aircraft was awe-inducing. A 10-ton fighter jet coming to a stop in the air prior to landing apart from being a sight to behold was full of controllability dichotomies compared to a conventional fighter. The Harrier was capable of four different types of take-off and five different types of landings, indicative of the range of stages in the instability regime that the pilot was expected to handle. A conventional aircraft takes-off and lands in one way only i.e. horizontally. Therefore, the longer a pilot had flown conventional fighters in the past more challenging it would be to unlearn those habits and imbibing VSTOL techniques. This would become even more exacting if a pilot encountered an emergency in which human mind tends to revert to natural habits.

A conventional aircraft exhibits stability in all three axes of its control, i.e. roll, pitch and yaw because the airflow over the wings and control surfaces keep flowing well above the stalling speed of the aircraft. In case of the Harrier, since the aircraft can land vertically, she had to transit from a conventional i.e. wing-borne flight to vertical hover which is fully jet borne. The entire weight of the aircraft, roughly 10 tons, had to be supported by the engine. Also, from the time her transition from conventional to vertical flight began, the speed of airflow would continue to reduce over the wings and control surfaces and therefore aircraft became less and less stable and controllable. Little surprise then that, in 33 years of operation in India, only 60 pilots became operational in our navy, nearly double having commenced their attempt to train.

Having gone past the basic flying stage, Cdr Arun Prakash and I were appointed to British Aerospace facility at Dunsfold in Surrey for background factory experience to learn the nuances of test-flying the Harrier. We had the benefit of flying with the legendary John Farley, the Chief Test Pilot of BAE who is known to be father of the Harriers. He is the pilot who explained and demonstrated to the world the technique to handle the beast called Harrier.

We also attended a special course at the Rolls Royce factory in Bristol where Harrier’s engine Pegasus was manufactured. Anyone who understood the Pegasus would invariably master the flying technique of the Harrier. In fact, during Harrier instructor’s course we were made to fly one full circuit and vertical landing with reference to the Jet Pipe Temperature gauge alone!

This was followed by Sea Harrier Operational Flying Training with the RN at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. Almost a year was spent to learn and exploit the Sea Harrier through the full spectrum of her operational envelope including the Deck Landing by day on board the HMS Hermes (which was later bought by IN and christened as Viraat in 1986).

Despite pressures from the RN to accept a British flying instructor for training in India, the Indian Navy stuck to her guns to use Indian Navy’s flying instructor for ab initio training at home when we returned in December 1983. In fact, IN flew the Sea Harriers far longer than the RN. It is also a testimony to the skills of our engineers — 52 in total — that Sea Harrier frame No 602 which was the first aircraft to be accepted by the Indian Navy in 1983 in the UK was also the last aircraft to switch off after a flying display on the day of her de-induction on 11 May 2016 at Goa!



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