Fearless At Sea Always – INAS 334 is Born

On Mar 6, 2024, as the sun arced towards the idyllic ‘Chinese fishing nets’ of Kochi in southern Kerala, a new squadron was commissioned into the fleet air arm of Indian Navy (IN). Designated Indian Naval Air Squadron 334 (INAS 334), it will be home to what IN’s video posted on X (formerly Twitter) called “the most advanced multi role helicopter” — the MH-60R Seahawk. Admiral R Hari Kumar, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, ADC, Chief of the Naval Staff, presided over the traditional ceremony at INS Garuda.

This is a crucial milestone in IN’s journey to fill a critical vulnerability gap in embarked anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and marks the transition of the ‘MH-60R Cell’ into a commissioned squadron. INAS 334 is likely to be designated as the training squadron for Seahawks, with operational squadrons / embarked flights covering the vast Indian peninsula once deliveries are complete.

Inducted through a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) contract inked in 2020 for approximately $2.12 bn, the 24 Seahawks will replace ageing Sea King anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters that have been soldiering on since the 80s. The first tranche of two out of 24 ‘Romeos’ arrived at the Naval Air Enclave, Cochin International Airport, on July 28, 2022 (a third arrived few weeks later). The present holding of six Romeos are in the same configuration as those in service with the US Navy.

Blast from the past: The author with members of S-70B MRH evaluation/demonstration team at Stratford, CT, 2011 (Kaypius photo)

Romeo Trivia

  • India is the fourth customer for MH-60R platform after the USN, Australia, Denmark, and Saudi Arabia. Since the India contract, navies of Greece, South Korea and Australia have placed orders. Royal Australian Navy is the 1st international repeat customer for Romeo.
  • The sixth airframe for the Indian Navy is the 327th Romeo produced by Sikorsky / Lockheed Martin.
  • Collectively, Romeos have flown more than 900,000 flight hours, which includes over 30,000 flight hours by Royal Australian Navy fleet, about 9,000 flight hours by the Danish fleet, and the remainder by the U.S. Navy MH-60R fleet.
  • MH-60R Seahawks begin their life at Troy, Alabama where the airframe sections are built by Sikorsky. These airframes are then shipped to the Sikorsky factory in Stratford, Connecticut. Finally, the baseline aircraft is flown to Owego, NY, where the integrated mission systems are installed. From Owego, Seahawks begin their final journey to the Indian Navy via U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland (info courtesy Sik/LM/PMA-299).
  • Folded ‘Romeo Indian’ parked at Kochi Airport, Jul 28, 2020 (Indian Navy pic)

During the past 40 years, Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, and the U.S. Navy have designed, built, fielded, and updated several variants of H-60 SEAHAWK helicopters. India is bringing the latest and most advanced SEAHAWK variant – the MH-60R ‘Romeo’ helicopter – into their naval fleet. Operational with the U.S. Navy and a growing number of other countries, Romeo helicopters have proven their effectiveness and reliability to find submarines and other ships at sea. Proven too is the aircraft’s low cost to operate and maintain. The Indian Navy also will be able to upgrade its Romeo fleet as Sikorsky and the U.S. Navy continue to add transformative technologies that meet emerging maritime threats”, Mr. Hamid Salim, Vice President, Sikorsky Maritime Systems, said in an exclusive quote to this author.

Induction and Validation

The first three aircraft were ceremoniously inducted at INS Garuda, Kochi, on 16 Sep 2022. All newly-inducted flying helicopters are put through their paces by a rigorous Intensive Flying & Trials Unit (IFTU) to validate their performance in India’s tropical conditions. For this induction, the IN deep-selected a rich mix of aircrew, instructors, test crew and technical crew, cutting across diverse streams. The MH-60R cell has pursued its mandate relentlessly against numerous challenges. They have also formulated and evaluated training profiles and syllabi for aircrew and maintenance training. Capt Soni Thomas, a qualified flying instructor and production test pilot, was the induction team and MH-60R Cell leader (now doing sea command). Capt Abhishek Ram, an experimental test pilot, succeeded him last year and took over as the commissioning CO of INAS 334 today.

Team INAS 334, The Seahawks (Indian Navy pic)

Indigenous Training Solutions

The first batch of air operations officers & pilots graduated in Jun and Dec of 2023 respectively, barely a year from induction. The seamless graduation of multiple batches of maintenance crew within the same timeframe indicates a robust training pipeline modelled on the US Navy, with one notable difference at this juncture. The IN has not yet acquired the MH-60R simulator — known as the ‘Training Solution’ in USN parlance — which forms an essential cog in modern aviation training. Achieving the training milestones sans the ‘training solution’ must have drawn from the deep well of aviation training expertise created by IN over the decades.

There is good news. It is learnt from reliable sources that a FMS case for ‘MH-60R Training Solution’ with CAE Inc has been approved by the Indian Defense Acquisition Council last year. This would include a Tactical & Operational Flight Trainer (TOFT), a maintenance trainer, and possibly one complete MH-60R airframe for dispensable payload loading/unloading training. When operationalised, the IN will join an exclusive circle of international MH-60R customers who have the full-spectrum training solution. The simulator is expected to be up and running by 2027 at Kochi, hopefully coincident with delivery of all 24 Romeos.

An Indian Navy MH-60R exercises with submarine at sea (Indian Navy photo)

Shipboard integration

The Follow-on Support (FOS)/ Follow-on Spares Support (FOSS) cases were delinked from the main FMS case due to budget constraints. This seems to have posed some challenges, imposing cascade delays on integration of the Seahawks with the fleet air arm. Availability of shipboard Ground Support Equipment (GSE) and Manufacturer’s Recommended List of Spares (MRLS) in multiple sets is crucial for any embarked operation without which the ability to deploy on ships for prolonged duration would be severely hampered. Despite these challenges, the MH-60R Cell has undertaken Ship Helicopter Operating Limitations (SHOL) trials on all major surface combatants of the fleet, including a marathon sortie of 11-hours on a single aircraft with “hot refuelling” — arguably a record of sorts.

The road ahead

The mature Seahawks will set a new normal for Indian Navy. Ongoing indigenous multirole helicopter programs (UHM, DBMRH) and agencies vested with their design and development (HAL, private industry) could identify areas of collaboration for key technologies from what is arguably one of the most advanced MRH with the smallest footprint in its category. The IN also has the option to order more numbers while indigenous programs aim to break the glass ceiling of ‘future vertical lift’ instead of reinventing the rotor.

An Indian Navy MH-60R Seahawk on deck (Indian Navy pic)

The balance 18 Seahawks will be customised with ‘India Unique Equipment’ that includes tactical equipment, IFF, data link, weapons etc, mostly from indigenous sources. LoA for a separate weapons contract was signed in 2023, with deliveries expected later half of this decade. When all the jigsaw pieces come together, the Seahawks will be fully integrated with the network-centric hunt-kill web of Indian Navy. In the meantime, going by IN’s prowess in innovation and the “push from top”, don’t be surprised if sonobuoys & torpedoes flying on IN’s P-8I have already found their way onto the Seahawks. “We are ready and itching to ‘mark loiter’ in the Indian Navy’s Area of Responsibility“, a senior member of the induction team told this author.

One can understand where this naval aviator’s confidence comes from. The IFTU time has been well-spent ironing out logistics, developing SOPs and tactical summaries, completing SHOLs and preparing for extended deployments with the fleet at sea. An estimated 1500 hours have been flown on six airframes within eighteen months of induction, with no FOS/FOSS contract yet in place. The legacy of past ASW greats are big shoes to fill. Going by what has been achieved, there is every reason to believe that the baton passes into safe hands.

I wish you the best. True to your motto, may you remain Fearless at Sea Always.

“जलधौ निर्भयम् सर्वदा”

INAS 334 Crest (courtesy Indian Navy)

(An edited version of this story was published by Vertical Magazine. You can access it here).


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2024. All rights reserved. Photos used in this story are credited to Indian Navy. I can be reached at realkaypius@gmail.com or on my X (formerly Twitter) handle @realkaypius.

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