Navy Acquires Teeth

The Indian Navy is revamping its naval aviation capability with new aircraft, helicopters and unmanned systems

Atul Chandra

The Indian Navy is in the midst of a dramatic revamp of its naval aviation assets with e ongoing induction of new Boeing P-8I Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), soon to be delivered Sikorsky MH-60R ‘Romeo’ Anti-Submarine and Anti-Surface Warfare (ASW/ASuW) helicopters and impending contracts for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI) SeaGuardian high-end armed Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones.

Clockwise from top left: MQ-9B SeaGuardian; P-8I MPAs; US Navy crew load a Hellfire air training missile onto MH-60S Seahawk helicopter during a training exercise (Pic courtesy: Rosana Cruz Martinez); A USAF Predator drone; Kongsberg’s NSM long-range, fifthgeneration precision strike missile

All three platforms feature long endurance, sophisticated sensors and weapons making them the most potent ASW/ASuW assets in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). All three platforms will have high levels of interoperability with each other and partner forces in the region, providing the navy with a valuable force multiplier capability. What is also common across all these three platforms is that they are top-of-shelf US military equipment cleared for sale to India.


Regional Superiority

The soon to be finalised USD 3 billion procurement for 20 SkyGuardian and 10 SeaGuardian drones from GA-ASI will provide a major boost to the navy’s surveillance and offensive capability. Ten SeaGuardians have been allocated to the navy, while the army and air force will receive 10 SkyGuardians each. Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approval for procurement of the advanced drone systems is expected shortly. The Navy was already operating two SkyGuardian systems, which were on lease for a period of one year. In addition to the US supplied drones, the Indian Navy is also planning to upgrade its Israeli Heron drones to carry precision guided munitions.

Both SkyGuardian and SeaGuardian can carry 2,155 kg of weapons or sensors across nine hard-points (8 wing and 1 centreline), in addition to 363 kg of internal payload. While the SkyGuardian has maximum range of 6,000+ nautical miles and endurance of 40 hours, the SeaGuardian has a 5,000+ nautical mile range and endurance of 30+ hours (depending on configuration).

As compared to manned aircraft, maritime drones are much more cost effective and also afford a naval vessel with the tactical capability to extend the reach of the vessel’s sensor. This allows surveillance over areas much wider than what a ship would be able to scan under normal circumstances. Maritime drones also offer unbeatable operating economics. According to GA-ASI, the SeaGuardian’s per hour operating cost is approximately Rs 3.75 lakh (USD5,000) as compared to a crewed maritime patrol aircraft, which would have an operating cost of approximately Rs 26.25 lakh (USD35,000) per hour. Besides flight hour costs, an MPA or naval support helicopter would also need more manpower and have higher maintenance costs.

The MQ-9B SeaGuardian can be configured with cross-domain capabilities for a vast range of maritime surveillance operations, including Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), HA/DR—Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief, Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement (Drug Trafficking, Illegal Immigration, Piracy, OMSI—Oceanic Maritime Security Initiative) and an Airborne Counter Mine Capability is also under development. The SeaGuardian is fitted with a multi-mode maritime surface-search radar with Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) imaging mode, an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, and a High-Definition Full-Motion Video sensor equipped with optical and infrared cameras. This sensor suite, augmented by automatic track correlation and anomaly-detection algorithms, enables real-time detection and identification of surface vessels over thousands of square nautical miles. The capability of the SeaGuardian is topped only by Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton High-Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) maritime drone, which, in a single flight, can cover more than one million square miles, or two and a half million square kilimeters, of ocean and littorals. With an endurance of 24 hours, the MQ-4C has an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles.

The UK was the first nation to acquire the SkyGuardian, which inducted it into the Royal Air Force (RAF) as the ‘Protector’, replacing its fleet of MQ-9A Reaper drones. The US State Department has also approved possible MQ-9B Foreign Military Sales (FMS) with anti-submarine warfare mission kits to the United Arab Emirates and Taiwan, but these deals have yet to fructify. Japan is another country stated to be interested in acquiring the SeaGuardian.


ASW Assets

The greatest addition to the Indian Navy’s ASW and ASuW capability has taken place with the induction of P-8I MPAs and the upcoming induction of cutting-edge, multi-mission MH-60R helicopters. The navy recently took delivery of its third of four additional aircraft ordered under an options contract in 2016.

The recent addition now takes the navy’s P-8I fleet to 11 aircraft. Since its induction into service in 2013, the P-8I fleet has crossed 30,000 flight hours. All aircraft are being extensively used for long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare missions, in addition to being deployed to assist during disaster relief and humanitarian missions. The P-8I’s capabilities are further enhanced through its secure, interoperable, net-ready systems and high-quality weapon systems, along with its open architecture design that provides an easy path for future modifications.

A 60,000sqft Training Support & Data Handling (TSDH) Centre at INS Rajali, Arakkonam, in Tamil Nadu is being built by Boeing, along with a secondary centre at the Naval Institute of Aeronautical Technology, Kochi which will have a dedicated maintenance simulator for ab-initio training of the technical personnel. The TSDH will be a civil facility and Boeing is to also provide on-site Comprehensive Annual Maintenance Contract for a period of 10 years. The indigenous, ground-based training will allow the Indian Navy crew to increase mission proficiency in a shorter time, while reducing the on-aircraft training time resulting in increased aircraft availability for mission tasking. India’s P-8I fleet is supported by Boeing, which provides training of Indian Navy flight crews, spare parts, ground support equipment and field-service representative support.

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