Guest Column | Serious Concerns

It’s high time India worked towards building a viable naval aviation force

RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)RAdm. Sudhir Pillai (retd)

The defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman while addressing the naval leadership during the Naval Commanders’ Conference on 26 October 2017 perceptively flagged ‘the vital relationship that maritime interests of a nation have with its economic growth’. She stated that ‘the maritime interests would be protected at all costs by ensuring a strong and credible Indian Navy’.

On 31 October 2017, she would follow up with the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approving the procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH). While there has been much debate about how and why India must invest in her military given the security challenges that confront the country, the nay-sayers have tended to deride our growing military expenditures against very critical competing priorities that can be ill-ignored.

Indian Navy’s Seaking helicopter
Indian Navy’s Seaking helicopter


The Maritime Security Imperatives

Central to India’s approach to human security is the economic wherewithal to invest in diverse areas such as health, education, poverty alleviation, the creation of employment opportunities, infrastructure, etc. This financial capability can only come about by engaging with markets and resources worldwide.

Such engagement requires secure Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC), protection across the seas, guaranteeing stability and security as the nation meshes with worldwide markets, energy and other resource centres, including human resources in distant corners of the world. This understanding is what caused the Raksha Mantri to flag at the Naval Commanders’ Conference that ‘the critical capability shortfalls that the Indian Navy faces in multi-role helicopters, conventional submarines and mine countermeasure vessels’ needs early redressal, given its close linkages to the ‘maritime (and economic) interests of a nation.’

Critical capability shortfalls are easy to list and bemoan. An acquisition strategy that seeks to plug these gaps while being mindful of other national priorities is urgently needed if we are to get our act together. This article examines (as a case in point) naval aviation capability shortfalls and seeks to suggest a ‘Strategy and Force Planning Primer’ or certain acquisition basics that can be vital if we are to invest wisely in addressing these critical capability shortfalls.


The Elusive Quest for Naval Helicopters

India’s quest for shipborne helicopters is a long story. This search will continue and never get fast-tracked unless it is understood in the South and North Blocks what these assets mean to the Indian Navy and how the navy will not be able to deliver across the spectrum of operations from peace to war in the absence of such vital assets. If this importance is not understood, then prioritisation in the investment-decision loop can suffer. The result is that RMs and the MoD hierarchy can be invited into the Naval Board Room biennially year after year with pleas of fast-tracking critical capability acquisition, but essential shortfalls of capability such as naval helicopters can prove elusive.

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