The Indian Navy is gearing up for the induction of INS Vikrant and procuring another aircraft carrier
For the Indian Navy, just like the air force and army, while procurements have got a boost but the long-drawn out process of acquisitions remain. The Indian Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the IAC-1, christened as INS Vikrant, is being built by Cochin Shipyard. It is estimated to roll out by 2023. Once INS Vikrant enters operations, India will have two aircraft carriers; the first one, INS Vikramaditya, was inducted in 2014 and is currently the only aircraft carrier in service.
Keeping in view that the navy currently operates only 45 fighters, there is bound to be a shortage of fighters to be flown from these aircraft carriers. As a result, the procurement of carrier-based aircraft is underway. Meanwhile, India is also considering procurement of another aircraft carrier, the IAC-2, which will be indigenously built. It is currently in its most nascent stages of development. INS Vikramaditya, already in service and INS Vikrant, which will soon be inducted, both follow the short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) system for the launch and recovery of jets from the deck of an aircraft carrier. The IAC-2, however, will have the catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system. As the IAC-2 nears induction, there is a sense of urgency to zero down on the fighter jets.
The navy first floated the tender to acquire 57 carrier-borne fighter jets in 2017, after rejecting the homemade LCA Tejas: it was found overweight and the thrust wasn’t enough for take-off from ski-jump ramp. At the time when the tender was floated, there were six global fighters that were compatible for the ski-jump aircraft carrier. Rafale, F-18 Super Hornet, MIG-29K, F-35B and F-35 C and Gripen. Of these, the F-18, Rafale and MIG-29 K stood a greater chance at inductions as these were twin-engine jets, preferable to the navy. Eventually, the only two that came to be shortlisted were Dassault Aviation’s Rafale and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. The MiG-29 Ks operated by the navy are expected to be phased out in the next few years. In October 2020, the US offered the F-18 fighters to India. In December the same year, F-18 Super Hornet proved successful in operating from a ski-jump ramp. The US Navy already uses F-19 Super Hornets from its carriers. F-18 fighters passing this test is a major achievement as these fighters, that are already in use with the US Navy on their aircraft carriers, operate from CATOBAR platforms and were originally made for such technology. Dassault Aviation, too, has said that its jets can operate from ski-jump carriers.
While the contention to win the contract is primarily between Rafale and Super Hornets, the naval variant of Tejas that was rejected by the navy before floating the tender in January 2020, has successfully carried out a ski-jump take-off from the aircraft carrier. In July 2020, The Hindu newspaper reported that the navy would start receiving the new twin-engine carrier-based fighter jet by 2032 developed by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), which would replace the MiG-29K. Citing sources, the report stated that taking into account budgetary constraints, the navy was looking to revise the tender for 57 carrier-based jets downwards.
“Based on the experience of carrier landing, the DRDO has offered to develop a twin-engine deck-based fighter for the navy. With the successful deck-landing, they decided to drop the naval LCA Mk2 and move on to the twin-engine jet,” the report stated. Nothing more has been heard on this yet.
Interestingly, in December 2020, Hindu reported that the Indian Navy may join the Indian Air Force (IAF) in acquisition of fighter jets. “The navy is looking to combine its multirole carrier-based fighter jet procurement tender along with the IAF tender for 114 fighters that is underway,’ it stated. This development, it said, came following a decision to cut down the numbers to be procured following the indigenous development proposal by the DRDO. The new number, according to the report, is 36, instead of 57.
When the US President Donald Trump visited India in February 2020, the two countries signed a USD3 billion worth military deal. This deal included the acquisition of the much-awaited 24 Sikorsky MH-60 R Sea Hawk helicopters worth USD2.6 billion. The MH-60 Romeo Seahawk are multirole helicopters that the navy was seeking for the past 14 years. These helicopters are crucial to carry out anti-submarine warfare and SAR missions. With China’s unwelcome forays in the Indian Ocean, these helicopters will play a major role in tracking down the Chinese submarines.
The MH-60R helicopters will replace the existing Sea King 42/ 42A helicopters currently in service with the navy. The programme to acquire multirole helicopters was first announced in 2006-2007 under the name Multirole Helicopter (MRH). This programme sought to procure 16 naval helicopters. Despite the ministry of defence (MoD) issuing a global request for proposal for the purchase of these 16 helicopters, the competition was extremely slow paced and at one point the navy was left to select between European NH90 and Sikorsky’s S-70 B helicopters. The S-70 B multirole helicopter won against the NH90. While Sikorsky had on offer the MH-60R helicopter, the Indian Navy was firm on S-70 B. The price negotiations delayed the sealing of this deal.
The navy, meanwhile, had another programme called the Naval Multirole Helicopter (NMRH) under works, for which it had said it would consider the Romeo helicopters. In 2015, Sikorsky was bought over by Lockheed Martin and the company insisted that MH-60R was in fact more suitable. Eventually, the programme veered towards a government-to-government deal. However, it was only in 2018 that the acquisition under the foreign ministry sales (FMS) route was cleared by the MoD for 24 MH-60R helicopters ahead of the US-India 2+2 talks. The deal finally came to be signed in 2020 and the first glimpse of the helicopter was released by Lockheed Martin in December 2020. The first batch of these helicopters will arrive in 2021.
After the agreement was signed, the navy released a statement saying, “As part of the Indian Navy’s commitment to the ‘Make in India’ initiative, the OEM M/s Lockheed Martin would also be discharging offsets through transfer of technology to Indian Offset Partners for manufacture of products and services. This would enable absorption of niche technology, skill development and manufacture of eligible products/ services leading to generation of employment, skilling of MSMEs and indigenous production of products for buy-back by the OEM.”
The MH-60R helicopters have advanced combat systems like sensors, missiles and torpedoes to track and hunt enemy boats and submarines. The helicopter, costs USD28 million each and has the sonobuoy launcher and a Raytheon advanced airborne low-frequency (ALFS) dipping sonar to detect submarines. MH-60 R is capable of carrying weapons such as hellfire missiles, precision kill weapon systems and MK 54 torpedoes. These can operate from aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers and cruisers.
The earlier deal to purchase 24 helicopters was done on an urgent basis as the unavailability of such helicopters put the navy at a great risk in the ocean. The navy, however, requires 123 more such helicopters. Since the MRH programme was split into a smaller FMS deal, the Indian Navy floated a global tender to acquire these helicopters in August 2017.
This programme was rebooted from its original programme of requirement of 44 helicopters. The number was taken to 123. This is said to be one of the biggest global tenders issued for military helicopters, coupled with the NUH programme of the navy which could cost the exchequer USD10 billion. The Indian Navy needs these helicopters to be in 9 to 12.5 ton category. In 2018, when the agreement for procurement of 24 helicopters was signed, it was not made clear what the category of the programme would be. Now it has been decided that the acquisition of 123 helicopters would be under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model. The deal for 123 helicopters is likely to take time.
Naval Utility Helicopters
Like the NMRH deal, the NUH deal, too, would be under the Strategic Partnership Model. The utility helicopters that the navy uses now are Chetak that are to be replaced. These are crucial for the navy as they will be employed for all maritime operations. The navy has a requirement of 111 helicopters. It is estimated that 16 under this category would come from the foreign OEM and the remaining 95 will be built by private Indian manufacturer. This is the first project under the SP model.
The global tender for the NUHs was floated along with the tender for the NMRH helicopters in 2017. The navy requires these fighters to be in the 4.5-tonne category. These helicopters will carry out light anti-submarine warfare, logistic, SAR, observation and electronic intelligence, anti-piracy missions. The Indian companies that have shown interest in this programme are Bharat Forge, Mahindra Defence, Adani Defence, Larsen & Toubro, Reliance Infrastructure and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd. The line-up of the global platforms for this programme includes two of the Airbus helicopters, As565 MBe Panther and H145. Also in the fray are Lockheed Martin’s S-76D and Russian Helicopter’s Ka-226T. These companies had submitted their bids in May 2019. For the production, Mahindra tied up with Airbus, whereas Tata tied up with Sikorsky. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) had expressed its intention to field the naval version of the ALH. The private companies had reacted strongly against HAL’s participation because it is a public entity. The navy, too, had rejected HAL’s helicopter saying, ‘it is not for us’.
The navy had entered a contract in 2017 for eight Chetaks to the Indian Navy. The delivery has been completed and the navy currently has more than 50 Chetaks in operation. Apart from the HAL’s Chetak, the navy has also been using the ALH Dhruv. The first of this was inducted in 2020. However, the current fleet is nowhere enough for the Indian Navy to fully meet its operational commitments.