Indian Naval Aviation: Modernisation and Opportunities
New Delhi. The last time the Indian Navy bolstered its aviation arm was in the mid-1980s with a series of inductions that included the fighter/strike Sea Harrier jump jets and anti-submarine and marine commando carrying version of Seaking helicopters from the UK, submarine hunters Kamov- 28 helicopters, and the giant long range maritime reconnaissance and antisubmarine aircraft TU-142 M (Great Bear) from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
These acquisitions gave the Indian Navy a potent search and strike force which made the world sit up and notice India’s thrust on gaining a credible maritime capability in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Even while India was gearing up for a meaningful role and rise to her potential in the region, countries like Australia viewed this development with a degree of alarm and skepticism. Therefore, it came as no surprise when Time magazine featured the rising power of Indian Navy on its cover story after the ceremonial review of the naval fleet by the then President of India in February 1988.
After the brief sparkle during that period, the aviation arm of the Indian Navy has been in ‘limbo’, so to say, for almost two decades. Blame it on whatever, resource crunch or the lack of foresightedness of defence planners and political leadership, there has been, at best, only ‘cosmetic’ augmentation of maritime airborne platforms from 1990 onwards.
On the other hand, the last ten years or so have seen India emerge as a dominant economic and political power in the IOR – a status that has attendant security implications. Given her strategic geographic location sitting astride the major sea lanes of communications (SLOCS), it becomes incumbent upon her to shoulder the responsibility for maintaining peace and tranquility in her backyard to be able to sustain that growth trajectory.
The Indian Navy has come alive to the situation at hand, and is therefore, seeking urgent remedial measures, both in the short and long term, to pull itself out of this quagmire.
To begin with, the limited upgrade programme (LUSH) of the 10 Sea Harriers is already on with the assistance of state owned HAL, Bangalore. This should see the aircraft remaining role worthy and operational for another decade or so, thereby enabling their deployment from the aircraft carrier Viraat and soon-to-be-acquired Admiral Gorshkov (re-christened Vikramaditya).
Refurbishment and upgradation of Seakings 42B and Kamov 28 is on the anvil. The troop carrying and sealift capability has received a shot in the arm with the arrival of even a small number of six UH-3H Seaking helicopters on board the INS Jalashwa (ex-USS Trenton).
The utilization of HAL manufactured Dornier, mounted with modern synthetic aperture radar and electronic warfare equipment for coastal and short range surveillance, has proved to be a success. Induction of 11 more aircraft is in the pipeline and some are being configured to carry paratroopers for marine commando operations.
Add to this, the innovative experiment of deploying Searcher and Heron UAVs, acquired from Israel, for surveillance over the sea, which has yielded encouraging results.
Collaboration with Russia for modernization and retrofitment programme of the existing three IL-38 aircraft (Navy’s mainstay for medium range surveillance) and purchase of two more to replace the ones lost in accident has reportedly run into rough weather though because of persistent delays and ‘below par’ performance of the much-touted advanced weapon-sensor management system ‘Sea Dragon’. Glitches pertaining to ordnance package for the new version are also known to have surfaced.
Three aircraft have however already arrived in India post-modernization and the remaining two are expected this year. The new aircraft are undergoing rigorous testing and evaluation trials in Indian conditions.
While the Navy continues to place faith and has ardently supported the funding of the widely brandished, but severely derailed, ‘home-grown’ Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programmes launched in the 1980s, their ‘navalised’ versions are nowhere near seeing the light of the day.
At this point in time, the ALH has a long way to go before the programme matures sufficiently for it to undertake even basic naval roles such as search and rescue (SAR) and communication duties.
The anti-submarine warfare (ASW) version, being developed by HAL, is falling well short of naval expectations – the major constraint being helicopter’s endurance thus curtailing its time on task (TOT) in the area of threat to execute an ASW mission. Similarly, naval LCA would take some steely resolve and Herculean efforts to be ready in time for operations from its chosen platform - the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), being constructed at Cochin Shipyard Limited and scheduled for induction by 2014.
However, what is currently in the news and where the interests of the major global aviation companies lie is in the new acquisitions that the Navy is seeking as a replacement for their ageing aerial machines.
The contract for the first major induction of Mig-29K was finalized in 2004 in tandem with the acquisition of Gorshkov. The Navy is set to acquire 16 aircraft comprising 12 fighters and four trainer versions (Mig 29KUB).
These variants are being exclusively developed for the Indian Navy using novel operation mode from the deck known as STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Landing), implying that the aircraft would use the ski-jump for short take-off (launch) and a set – possibly three – of ‘arrester wires’ for their recovery on board the ship.
The Navy can exercise the option of buying more of these aircraft for equipping the IAC.
The first of these new machines were set to arrive in India by late 2007, but certification clearances are apparently causing the delay and now the delivery is slated to commence by middle of this year. Meanwhile, the repair and modernization programme of Gorshkov is encountering major hurdles follwing steep escalation of the contract price by the Russians. Thus, work at the Sevmesh shipyard has almost come to a halt and the scheduled delivery date of August 2008 has slipped at least by a couple of years.
Media reports from Moscow though indicate that there could be a delay of two to three years.
The Navy is fervently scouting for a multi-capability advanced platform, equipped with state-of-the-art avionics and weapons, which could meet the growing needs of surveillance, networking and anti-submarine operations (LRMRASW) in their area of interest as a suitable replacement for TU-142M.
After intense technical scrutiny and field trials last year of the two short-listed platforms from the EADS (A 319) and Boeing (737-800), the latter is reported to have emerged as the front-runner for supplying eight aircraft to the Indian Navy.
The deal could exceed US$2 billion, inclusive of the platform, mission systems and weapons.
The platform, which is simultaneously under development for the US Navy, will be customized to Indian specifications and is being dubbed the P-8I.
This acquisition is set to propel the Indian Navy into the big league and anoint her the ability to operate seamlessly with advanced navies. But, with stringent procurement and offset procedures being adopted by the Indian defence establishment, especially for big ticket items, it would take a series of tough negotiations and some hectic negotiations on technology and bargaining before the deal materializes.
There are other ticklish issues such as end-user certification and the possibility of sanctions that need to be sorted out before the Americans get anywhere close to clinching the deal. However, given the critical requirement of these platforms, it is expected that the agreement on all issues (including the price) would be reached by early 2009 and the first of the aircraft would be delivered by end of the current fiveyear plan 2012.
(Annual budgets in India are made in accordance with five-year development plans covering all sectors, including defence).
The Navy has also floated Request for Information (RFI) for 16 multi-role helicopters as a replacement for the old Seakings.
Then, there is an immediate requirement for 15 to 20 Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT) for readying the naval pilots to operate from Vikramaditya and yet-to-be-named IAC. Though the supplier for these trainers is yet to be decided, there is much merit in establishing a commonality with the Indian Air Force insofar as the manufacture and maintenance lines are concerned.
Media reports indicate that the Indian Navy will buy 17 Hawk AJTs while the Indian Air Force has decided to buy 40 more of these jets in addition to the 66 already ordered.
Notably, naval pilots have traditionally trained with the IAF, although in the recent years, some had the opportunity to train on the US Goshawk, the carrier version of the Hawk used by the US Navy.
There is, therefore, no denying the fact that the defence planners and the political establishment have to put their act together and display deep conviction and unwavering commitment to resuscitate the naval air arm.
The timely fructification of acquisitions in the pipeline is crucial to lend credence to the potential of Indian Navy to safeguard not only her country’s interests, but also ensure peace and prosperity for the smaller littoral states in the region.
In the perspective of India’s new Defence Procurement Policies, DPP 2006, and the DPP 2008, which is around the corner, the naval requirements also mean opportunities for the Indian industry to acquire and absorb the latest technologies and for leading equipment manufacturers from across the globe, new business and perhaps some outsourcing of parts in line with the emerging trend of global supply chains.
European and global companies from other countries could comfortably build winning business strategies on their traditional footholds.