The 2018 edition of annual, multilateral exercise ‘Malabar’ is presently underway off Guam in the Pacific Ocean. Ships, submarines, helicopters and maritime reconnaissance aircraft from Indian Navy (IN), USN and JMSDF have commenced their exercises at sea to synergize and enhance maritime cooperation and interoperability.
Chinese forces will be watching the developments closely. One of the key serials this Malabar is the joint anti-submarine warfare (ASW) work-up, a growing concern for India as it faces potent submarines of the PLAN that regularly deploy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) .
IN and USN officials recently met at the highest levels. As per an official Indian Navy press release, Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Naval Staff visited USA from 19 to 23 March 2018. Such a visit or two is part of every Indian naval chief’s tour of duty. However, coming in the run-up to Malabar, the visit timing and team composition was noteworthy for both countries.
Admiral Lanba must be a worried man. Indigenous shipyards keep rolling out stealth frigates and guided missile destroyers with no helicopters to fill their hangars. Having commanded ships like the SNF-class Destroyers, he must be well aware of his navy’s blunted integral ASW capability. There is only so much the ageing Seakings and a few upgraded KV-28s can do.
In Jun 2017, after almost a decade of lengthy process, the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) case for 16 multirole helicopters (MRH) was withdrawn because the IN and Sikorsky (now Lockheed Martin) couldn’t reach an agreement on price. Winds of ‘Make in India’ & Strategic Partnership (SP) have swept ambitious plans for NMRH and NUH back into dusty files at MoD.
Even as the IN’s integral ASW helicopter numbers dwindle, the Chinese continue to flex their undersea muscles in the IOR. News reports indicate that Chinese forces shadowed the naval flotilla headed to Guam as it sailed through the South China Sea – a regular practice in waters China stakes claim to.
Helicopters from USN & JMSDF will be in action again this Malabar. Naval ASW professionals from India have gotten used to such vicarious experiences with modern heliborne ASW sensors and tactics only to return home to empty hangars. IN’s integral ASW capability is at an all-time low and the empty hangars are becoming difficult to cover with a cloak of opaque perspective plans. From past experience, the slim chances of present processes to deliver helicopters through DCS route within an acceptable timeframe must not be lost on anybody in IHQ MoD (Navy).
Against this background, USN showcasing the MH-60R ‘Romeo’ to the naval team headed by Adm Lanba during his March visit assumes importance. For the 16 MRH program, the S70B Seahawk with Rockwell Collins avionics suite was offered by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation while the ‘Romeo’ was fielded by USN & Lockheed Martin. That was a decade ago. Still no MRH.
Since the ‘Romeo’ offer was through ‘Foreign Military Sales’ (FMS) route, Indian MoD found it incompatible with the DCS case and the Romeo was benched. Seven years down the road, Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin have merged. Though Sikorsky lost the S70B deal before the merger, it looks like ‘Romeo’ is back in play.
It is serendipity hard to miss. Both sides must surely ponder on the obvious spin-offs of the new paradigm even as the IN faces ‘any port in a storm’ situation in matters rotary.
That few isolated cases of successful helicopter inductions have been through the ‘Govt to Govt’ route must also weigh heavily on the minds of IN officials. The Kamov-31 AEW helicopters came with the Russian ‘Krivak’ class stealth frigates. The six UH3H came with INS Jalashwa (ex-USS Trenton). Weapons for the Indian Navy’s Boeing P8Is that fly over Guam today came through the FMS route.
During ‘Malabar 2018’, USN Romeos and Japanese helicopters will strut their stuff again while the IN stands-by with vintage Chetaks (Alouette IIIB) for search & rescue. The situation, though lamentable for the IN, improves the contrast for “Romeo’.
But Indian MoD works differently. The Services and MoD have scored several self-goals by writing detailed procurement manuals and procedures that hang around their necks like millstones.
The navy would do well to have a close look at the Romeo’s performance this Malabar. Extrapolation of sensor performance in the Pacific to the tropical waters of Indian Ocean will not be without its shortcomings. But this is a fact IN knows only too well from past field evaluation trials of MRH which included a demonstration on the Romeo in 2011.
Past and present IN helicopter pilots who have stared at the bottom of the barrel for far too long hope the replacements come ASAP, whatever be the make or route. It is too risky to be sitting on decisions of this magnitude with a resurgent China under President Xi Jinping.
The incumbent government headed by PM Narendra Modi has the mandate and chutzpah to take tough decisions even though general elections are round the corner. Recent reports indicate a sizeable number of Chetak / Cheetah replacements for Indian Army and IAF will likely come through an intergovernmental route involving Ka-226 from Russia. Indian Navy has not been a beneficiary of this program either (though the platform is meant for utility role). The worry lines showed on the faces of naval officials who visited USA this March.
If anyone can swing it for the navy, it is Prime Minister Modi. Go for it, Navy.
When the IN ships return from Guam, rough seas await them; and it’s not only the monsoon. The shortage of integral multirole helicopters is brewing into a perfect storm.
If the MoD is tuned-in as sharply as Chinese submarines lurking below layer, surely something must ‘ping’.
(An edited version of this article was carried by Rotor & Wing International. It can be accessed here
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2018-19. All rights reserved. Cover photo from official website of Indian Navy. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org