Welcome Home, Romeo Indian!

The first tranche of two out of 24 MH-60 ‘Romeo’ helicopters contracted under Foreign Military Sales arrived at the Naval Air Enclave, Cochin International Airport at about 1030h, July 28, 2022. Shipped by a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster Special Air Assignment Flight, these add to the three already handed over to the Indian Navy at USA in Jun 2021. A third airframe is scheduled to reach India shortly. These three helicopters will be flown and air-tested by IN crew in the coming days after which a formal unveiling is expected. The navy’s long drought of capable ASW helicopters finally sees a welcome shower of hope.

Team Romeo Indian after arrival at Cochin International Airport 28 Jul 2022 (Indian Navy pic, via Twitter)

The FMS contract for purchase of ‘Romeos’ was signed between India and USA on Feb 25, 2020, weeks before the visit of former US President Donald Trump. On the occasion of India’s Navy Day (Dec 4, 2020), Lockheed Martin released the ‘First Look’ of the India MH-60R. The first MH-60R production helicopter in IN colours conducted its maiden flight at Owego, New York, May 16, 2021.

For the IN, this signals the first import of multirole helicopters (MRH) in 21st Century and the second import of western-origin MRH in over four decades. The Sea King Mk-42B ‘flying frigates’ were imported from UK in the 80s. A long-drawn Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) case for procuring 16 MRH fell through in June 2017 when contract negotiations with Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) broke down over commercial issues. NFH-90 helicopter offered by Agusta Westland had already been axed from that race after Indian MoD blacklisted the company. The Navy moved quickly to recover lost ground by going the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. A Govt-to-Govt deal for 24 MH-60R helicopters was inked with US Navy and Lockheed Martin.

Indian Navy photo of Romeo Indian flypast in USA

It is reliably learnt that the first six Romeos will be in the same configuration as the ones in US Navy service, save for few tactical equipment such as IFF and data link. The India-customised ones are expected to arrive later next year. Deliveries of all 24 will be completed by 2025, as per official sources. Lockheed Martin calls the Romeo “the world’s most advanced maritime helicopter”, “better than any helicopter of its kind in living on ships and operating from shore”. With a folded length of around 42 ft and folded width less than 12 ft, the MH-60R Seahawk — smaller in size than its predecessor Sea King — will find easy storage inside hangars of frontline IN ships.

Folded ‘Romeo Indian’ parked at Kochi Airport, Jul 28, 2020 (Indian Navy pic)

Nobody knows the pangs of fleet replacement better than IN’s fleet air arm. Bereft of multirole helicopters in both capability and numbers, the IN was left fielding five-decade old Alouettes on frontline warships while most others sailed with an empty deck. A single squadron of embarking Sea King Mk-42B, KV-25 (decommissioned 2009), KV-28 (under upgrade since 2016), and a couple of shipborne flights dented the navy’s integral air ASW capability for long. India’s warship building capacity matured in the meantime, launching a steady stream of warships and an indigenous aircraft carrier ‘Vikrant’, but with no MRH for integral ASW/ASuW.

More good news: the formal handover of IAC 1 from Cochin Shipyard Ltd to IN also coincided with the arrival of first batch of Romeos. With the forthcoming commissioning of IAC-1 ‘Vikrant’ and the first Romeo squadron, idyllic Kochi — home to IN’s Southern Naval Command and a hub of training — will soon herald a new epoch in the growth of IN’s naval air arm. The unfolding situation coincides, rather serendipitously, with 75 years of Independence — “Azaadi ka Amrut Mahotsav“.

Roles & Specifications

The Indian MH-60R features Lockheed’s ‘Common Cockpit’ that is seen across the USN fleet of MH-60 Romeos and Sierras. The Romeo Indian comes with a multi-mode radar with ISAR capability and exclusive modes for detecting periscopes. It has a Multi-Spectral Targeting system comprising Forward Looking Infrared, Low Light Television and laser designators for range finding and target designation. The Electronic Warfare (EW) suite has the capability to function as a search, surveillance, and corroboration sensor, providing the crew with enhanced situational awareness against EW threats.

Lockheed Martin’s trademark ‘Common Cockpit’ that flies on all USN MH-60 Romeos and MH-60 Sierras (pic from LM website)

For ASW, the Romeo features an Advanced Low Frequency Dunking Sonar and GPS-capable sonobuoys. The onboard acoustics system is a formidable force against stealthy submarines. Secure voice communication, SATCOM, and datalink systems will enable the Romeo to communicate and exchange data with air and surface platforms. The helicopter is equipped with a self-protection suite comprising chaff and IR flares that can be deployed automatically or manually.

Weapons for the Indian Romeo — to be contracted under a separate deal — are expected to be same as those on the USN Romeos. These include Mk 54 torpedoes, Hellfire Missiles and Advance Precision Kill Weapon System rockets. The Romeo Indian is also being equipped with few mission-specific Buyer Nominated Equipment (BNE). One can expect indigenous tactical equipment to be in this ‘classified cart’.

The first batch of Romeo Indian crew with “skipper” Capt Soni Thomas at USA (IN pic)

Crew Training

The first batch of aircrew (Pilots and Air Ops Officers), air technical officers and aviation sailors commenced their training with the US Navy on Jun 06, 2021. A total of 30 aircrew, 10 air technical officers and 60 air arm sailors were contracted for training by the US Navy under this deal. The training is being progressed in staggered tranches with varied durations and will conclude by mid-2023. The first batch of air and ground crew are already in India preparing for induction of the aircraft at Southern Naval Command.

Training Curriculum

The Indian Naval aircrew underwent extensive medical screening and rigorous survival training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, prior commencing flying training. The flying training (simulator and aircraft) was undertaken at Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron HSM 41 and US Navy’s West Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) at NAS North Island, San Diego. On completion of the type conversion training, the IN QFIs and QNIs underwent an ‘Instructor Under Training’ (IUT) syllabus, to commence in-country training in India. The pilots were awarded Day and Night Deck Landing Qualification (DLQ) on the MH-60R. The IN technical crew were trained on ‘O’ Level maintenance at Centre for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit (CNATTU), also located at NAS North Island. It is understood that a case for ‘Follow on Support’ to enable ‘I’ and ‘D’ level maintenance is being progressed by the technical directorate at NHQ.

Induction & Integration

To ensure smooth afloat integration of the Romeos, the ‘MH-60R Cell (Kochi)’ was formed at INS Garuda, Kochi on May 07, 2021. The unit’s foremost mandate is to create necessary infrastructure for operations and support training of the crew till the first squadron is commissioned. The initial operating base is being set up at Kochi, which would likely be commissioned as the Romeo training squadron. We can expect a squadron each on the Western and Eastern seaboard to support IN’s two fleets.

With the induction of Romeos, the IN has moved closer to correcting the glaring mismatch between aspiration and capability. Any ‘influencer’ effect the Romeo contract will have on Indian Navy’s biggest helicopter program for 123 naval MRH remains to be seen. From past experience, and present winds of Atma Nirbhar Bharat blowing across India, this could well be the last import of MRH for India. The baton now passes to indigenous firms to deliver on their promises. This contract offers IN and indigenous industry a good opportunity to build robust collaborations with Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin and USN for future MRH programs. Hope that ship hasn’t already sailed in our dogged determination to reinvent the wheel through ‘Make in India’.

Past and present IN helicopter pilots have stared at the bottom of the barrel for far too long looking for replacements for the gallant Harpoons, Eagles and Falcons. Whatever be the make or route for NMRH finally chosen, it is too risky to be fiddling with decisions of such magnitude with a resurgent dragon breathing over our shoulders.

Finally, an anecdote. 2007. Somewhere in the Bay of Bengal. Ships, submarines, helicopters and maritime reconnaissance aircraft from Indian Navy (IN), USN and Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) commenced their exercises at sea to synergize and enhance maritime cooperation and interoperability during the annual multilateral exercise ‘Malabar’. I was embarked on a frontline warship of Eastern Fleet with an integral KV-28 ASW helicopter. This Russian miracle, with a robust airframe but antiquated sensors, piloted by a single pilot and one Tactical Coordinator, flew relentless sorties by day. As the sun set, one half of our capability fell dormant. We watched from the sidelines as young lieutenants from JMSDF took to the dark night with their MH-60 Romeos, dipping their sonars while we were resigned to radar/sonobuoy search only. I bristled at the inequity and how little we had done to correct it. We never lacked in courage as we did with capability; but the sea is a terribly unforgiving medium. The fire in my belly was quenched somewhat during subsequent tours to naval HQ and an exhaustive field evaluation trials for MRH. What we have, in some measure, is a late comeback — der aaye, durust aye, like they say in Hindi. Though old and inconsequential to this game, I am personally very proud.

Whatever you fly, remember, the test crew got there before you! (Kaypius pic, 2011)

Here’s wishing the Romeo Indian fair winds and following seas. A silent vote of thanks to those who toiled day & night for two decades to fill the critical capability gap in IN’s integral ASW and ASuW. Operational authorities would do well to allow the Romeo Indian crew adequate settling time to sharpen flying and maintenance skills through training and consolidation before pushing them into deployments. Meanwhile, get the weapons contract going and sort the backend logistic support ASAP.

The heavens won’t wait. Neither will the enemy.

(An edited version of this article was carried by Vertical Magazine on 28 Jul 22. It can be accessed here)


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com


5 thoughts on “Welcome Home, Romeo Indian!



  2. Hm, and what about that it has no Emergency Flotation….? What was the call on acquiring without it.?

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