MH-60R will provide India an ‘ASW’ edge over China

               IDD explainer

IDD Bureau

Imagine a scenario, a submarine of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is lurking under the waters either in the Arabian Sea along India’s west coast or in Bay of Bengal which forms the country’s east coast.  An Indian Naval warship is within close proximity, its carrying on deck a ‘Sea King 42’ anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capable helicopter.

The copter is more than 40 years old  and is kept sea-worthy against all odds like shortage of spares. Despite having submarine hunting sonars and radars, the copter is clearly two generations behind its modern-day  variants. The Indian Pilot would find it difficult to pick up the undersea vessel. The Captain of Chinese vessel would surely know this capability gap —  that the Sea-King is running on an extended life and is two generations behind —  and would have largely unrestricted run.

A Sea King helicopter coming to land on board the INS Vikramaditya : File pic from 2014

The busiest sea lanes of communication (SLOCS) pass through these waters  and China often sends  in its submarines under a thinly disguised front of an anti-piracy patrol. Why a submarine is needed for anti-piracy is baffling for other Navies. A submarine, under-sea, can “pin down” six-seven warships just by instilling the fear of unknown and can also track ship movement.

India will regain dominance

This scenario of PLAN submarines going largely unchecked by Indian assets would soon change. India and the US are set to sign a  $ 2.6 Billion ( approx Rs 18,200 crore) deal for 24 multi-role MH -60R Lockheed Martin copters, the same as used by the US Navy.

The acquisition will provide “teeth” to the Navy in its role of dominating the Indian Ocean. The area between the Persian Gulf ( around the Middle east) and the Straits of Malacca ( a key trade route or ships bound towards China & Japan) is what India sees itself as leader.

India’s submarine hunting abilities would be clearly ahead of China after induction of new copters.

US Congressional Research on “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress”  saying “China’s navy currently is assessed as having limitations or weaknesses in certain areas, including joint operations with other parts of China’s military and  antisubmarine warfare (ASW)”. The research was last updated on January 22, 2020

The MH-60R will have full anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability, as well as anti-surface warfare capability, including anti-ship missiles. In other words it can hunt submarines as well as knock out ships and conduct search-and-rescue operations at sea.

The helicopters are designed to operate from frigates, destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers. The Lockheed Martin-built helicopters would replace India’s ageing fleet of British-made Sea King helicopters.

A formal contract to get multi-role helicopters for the Navy is expected to be signed anytime now. The forthcoming India-visit of US President  Donald Trump ( Feb 24 and 25) matters are moving quickly.

Why the MH 60 R

These will be the very latest in technology, much different from the Indian Navy’s dwindling fleet of Sea King copters. In these four decades, submarine hunting technology has changed, the electro-optics and firepower on board modern copters is vastly different. 

The new helicopter will add to the potential of the Navy’s Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft. Eight of the P8I are in the fleet and another four are on order. The aircraft have the ability to quickly search a wide area of water, the helicopters like the MH-60R can then be launched from ship decks to specific areas.

An ASW-capable helicopter with its sea-dunking sonars is a favoured platform for detecting a submarine as an over-flying helicopter itself cannot be detected or targeted from a submarine.

The MH-60R deploying a sea-dunking sonar. File pic Lockheed Martin

Such helicopters are needed as over the past one year or more, submarines of the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of China have been constantly noticed in the Indian Ocean. With submarine technology becoming more sophisticated, tracking these under-sea vessels is a challenge. China has 61 submarines, including nine nuclear-powered, allowing longer endurance.

What is capability of MH-60 R

Over 300 MH-60R Seahawk helicopters operating worldwide with over 600,000 flight hours accumulated.

The Indian requirements comprise a long list ( read it here) including spare engines, specific missile, Mk-54 torpedoes and also the ‘inert training rounds of the Naval Strike Missile without actually procuring the missile itself. The Naval Strike Missile (NSM) is designed to hit targets such as ships more than 180 kilometres away.

A screen shot of the capabilities of MH-60R. From Lockheed Martin website

It has Multi-Mission Capability that is unmatched in its class. It offers superior maritime capabilities. A fully integrated mission system builds complete situational awareness and actionable knowledge, enabling target engagement both close-in and over-the-horizon.

Lockheed Martin website says it is the most reliable and cost effective option in it class. Its availability is 98 percent and has an operating cost of less than $ 5000 per flight hour.  It has the lowest life-cycle cost in its class, says the company website.

Another plus in the India-US ties

In November 2018, India made a formal request to the US for the purchase of 24 MH-60R choppers in a government to government deal under the Foreign Military Sales route.

The copter request was made after both countries signed the Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement (COMCASA),   one of the ‘foundational agreement allowing the US to share encrypted communication and satellite data with India.

This proposed sale will strengthen the U.S.-Indian strategic relationship. The US sees this as improvement for India which it sees as a “major defensive partner which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region”.

India will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense.  India will have no difficulty absorbing these helicopters into its armed forces.

India was granted the unique Major Defence Partner (MDP) designation in 2016 by the Obama administration — a step towards India accessing US military technology at a level on a par with those of the U.S.’s closest allies. India was then given Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status by the US in August 2018, the third Asian country after South Korea and Japan to acquire it. This was to further facilitate the transfer of technology in the defence and space sectors.

The copters will be compatible with American warships, drones and submarines. Both sides already engage in very high end Naval exercises and are close strategic partners.

Pakistan too poses a threat

It’s not just China, Pakistan’s Submarines  too posed threats  to India in the past and will continue to pose threats.

 Former Vice chief of the Indian Navy,  Vice Admiral GM Hiranandani wrote about it in his book “Transition to Triumph: History of the Indian Navy, 1965-1975”. He narrates how Pakistan Navy submarine ‘PNS Ghazi’ reached off the coast of Vishakapatnam on India’s eastern sea-board during the India-Pakistan war ( Dec 3 to Dec 16, 1971) . The sub was trailing the INS Vikrant India’s only aircraft carrier, but itself was hit an sunk on Dec 4, 1971.  That the vessel travelled 3000 kms from Karachi to Viskapatnam shows the threat it posed

China has an agreement with Pakistan for the sale of eight submarines. The first four will be built in China and the remaining four in Pakistan.

China’s rapid growth in submarines

A US Department of Defence report ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019’ says “ Modernization of China’s submarine force remains a high priority for the PLA navy. It currently operates four SSBN’s, six nuclear-powered attack submarines SSN’s and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines”.

The numbers will grow between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020, says the US assessment.

It says China continues to increase its inventory of conventional submarines that can launch advanced anti-ship cruise missile  (ASCM). Since the mid-1990s, the PLAN has purchased 12 Russian-built Kilo -class units, eight of these are capable of launching ASCMs. In the past 25 years, Chinese shipyards have delivered 13 Song class  conventional subs and 17 Yuan- class diesel-electric that have air-independent propulsion. A  total of 20 Yuan’s will be in production by 2020.

India needs to watch out for  Beijing’s newest SSBNs the Jin class are like the previous generation of Russian/Soviet vessels. They are 10,000 tonnes and carry lethal ICBM’s, the Julang 2, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) to hit targets 7,700 kms away, China’s four  operational JIN-class SSBNs represent China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent.

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