India Selects S-70B as Its Naval Multi Role Helicopter… No more.
In September 2008, Flight International reported that India’s defence ministry has issued a tender for “advanced multirole naval helicopters” to several manufacturers around the world, including AgustaWestland, EADS and Sikorsky. The initial RFP reportedly covered 16 helicopters, with a potential expansion to 60 helicopters.
The problem, as usual, is that nothing happened for years, while critical Indian defenses were left rotting. India’s naval sphere of influence is growing, and the country purchased long-range P-8i jets to improve its territorial coverage. Unfortunately, that can’t paper over a glaring hole in India’s defenses. The Navy currently has many high-end ships without serious naval helicopter capability. Few of their Russian Ka-28s are still fit for service, and their small and aged Sea King fleet faces both technological and airframe limitations. It’s a terrible policy for a country that continues to add high-cost, high-value ships to its fleet, in a region with more and better submarines.
Finally, by the end of 2014 India indicated interest in expediting its initial naval multirole helicopter acquisition.
India’s Anti-Submarine Weakness
Helicopters: Flying Low, Dying Slow
As of 2014, the situation has become grave. India’s Ka-28 fleet has dwindled to just 4 operational helicopters, while a mid-life upgrade that would restore 10 to flying condition and give them modern sensors has been trying to get underway since 2008. The effective Sea King helicopter fleet has dwindled to just 16-17 upgraded machines, and all of them won’t be in flying condition all of the time. India’s Naval Air Arm also has a small number of Dhruv utility helicopters, and a somewhat larger set of very old Chetak helicopters that are only suitable for light supply and search and rescue roles, but neither is much help in sea control roles. The resulting situation is dire:
“For instance, between the six Talwar class frigates, which include the recently inducted frigates Teg, Tarkash and Trikand, only three carry a helicopter. Some other frigates don’t have even one helicopter between them. Coming to larger ships like the destroyers, one Kamov [Ka-28] helicopter is being shared between five Rajput class ships.”
These are key ships that would normally be tasked with anti-submarine duties. Without helicopters, their ability to perform those roles drops sharply. Which means that they are not fit for purpose to protect India’s carriers against Pakistani or Chinese submarines. A July 2014 report in India Today said that just 20% of available slots were filled in the Indian Navy, based on:
- Delhi Class destroyers can carry 2 helicopters
- Kolkata Class frigates can carry 2 helicopters
- Shivalik, Betwa, and Godavari Class frigates can carry 2 helicopters
- Talwar Class frigates can carry 1 helicopter
- Offshore Patrol Vessels can carry 1 helicopter
- Landing Ship Tank (Large) can carry 2 helicopters
- INS Viraat aircraft carrier can carry 8 helicopters
- INS Vikramaditya aircraft carrier can carry 12 helicopters
Towed Sonar: Rolling in the Deep
To make things worse, the Indian Navy has been trying to import an Advanced Towed Array Sonar (ATAS) for its ships since the mid-1990s, but the Ministry of Defence has blocked it in favor of DRDO projects that went nowhere. The Nagan project was finally shut down in 2012, but DRDO just turned around and started a new ALTAS project in its place. As a result, 21 destroyers, frigates and corvettes bought since 1997 lack key sonar systems: 3 Delhi Class destroyers, 3 Kolkata Class destroyers, 6 Talwar Class frigates, 3 Brahmaputra Class frigates, 3 Shivalik Class frigates, and 4 Kamorta Class corvettes. They must depend, instead, on an Indian HUMSA passive array towed sonar with limited capabilities.
Indian MoD approval for a limited 6 ATAS buy was finally granted to an exasperated navy in 2009, but baseless complaints of wrongdoing left Atlas Elektronik’s systems in limbo, despite investigations that cleared the procurement.
That leaves India’s navy with a double ASW handicap, just as advanced submarine systems are proliferating in Pakistan and the Southeast Asian region. At the same time, the country is introducing advanced vessels like aircraft carriers and their accompanying multi-role surface ships. It’s a very poor situation, which would quickly turn disastrous if put to a military test.
Helicopters: Acquisition Programs
In response, there are 2 acquisition programs underway, and 2 potential upgrade programs.
NMRH: An initial tender for 16 front-line medium naval helicopters. India wants full anti-submarine capability, and anti-surface warfare capability that includes anti-ship missiles. Required secondary roles will include search and rescue (SAR), transport, casualty evacuation, etc. The RFP included options for 44 more, which could bring the total to 60. If an American helicopter is picked, India wants a Direct Commercial Sale that lets them manage the entire procurement themselves.
The final contenders were Sikorsky’s S-70B-x and NH Industries NH90 NFH; and even though trials finished in 2011, Defense Acquisition Council clearance didn’t happen until 2014. NH Industries’ complaints about requirement waivers granted to the S-70B caused most of the delay, which had predictable results within India’s Byzantine bureaucracies. It got to the point that the Navy openly criticized NH Industries, while insisting that both helicopters met naval staff qualitative requirements. Sikorsky was generally considered to have a strong edge, and ended up winning by default after the NH90 was removed.
A follow-on program is expected in the 9 – 12.5 tonne medium to medium-heavy classes, with reported numbers that have varied over time. If the anti-ship missile requirement changes or is dropped, Sikorsky is widely expected to substitute the MH-60R/S Seahawks, whose lack of an anti-ship missile made them ineligible as an NMRH candidate. Meanwhile, NHI’s NH90 isn’t going away, Airbus could push the NH90 or the naval Super Puma, Kamov can expect to keep trying, and AgustaWestland could offer the AW101 naval helicopter – if their position with the Indian government allows them to bid.
Indian Multirole Helicopter (IMRH). A program to build a domestic 12-tonne class helicopter as a joint venture with HAL. They want a maximum speed of 275 kmh, maximum payload of 3.5 tonnes at sea level, 500 km range at sea level, and a service ceiling of 6,500 metres.
India’s pattern of behavior makes the potential for interference with any NMRH follow-on obvious; in standard style, state industry lobbying for an exclusive contract would be followed by long delays before equipment reaches the Navy. One possibility is to bring in the NMRH/follow-on contenders for this partnership. Sikorsky’s S-92, for instance, is a 12-tonne helicopter that’s already partly manufactured in India at Tata, with a strong civil record in the offshore oil & gas industry and a naval helicopter variant that’s being (slowly) developed for Canada. Airbus has the precedent of their license manufacturing agreement with Brazil for EC725s, including an unarmed naval utility variant. The disadvantage? It throttles the development of a viable private competitor to HAL.
NUH: The Naval Utility Helicopter involves machines with a maximum take-off weight of 4.5 tons, as a replacement for existing HAL Cheetah and Chetak designs derived from the ancient Alouette-III. India’s Navy and Coast Guard were poised to benefit, and the 2012 RFP included 56 helicopters, 3 simulators, 28 spare engines, etc., with an option for another 28 helicopters (TL = 84). RFIs were issued in 2010 and 2011, and the RFP was issued in 2012 at an estimate of $900 million, with entry into service expected for 2016. In 2014, however, the Indian government canceled the competition and restarted it under different terms, which will require full manufacturing in India. Service by 2016 is extremely unlikely.
Coast Guard helicopters must include Search and Rescue duties as a matter of course, along with sensors for finding boats and people. Naval NUH helicopters also need to go beyond transport roles, and will be used both on shore and abord ship. India wanted the ability to carry rocket launchers, lightweight torpedoes, and depth charges on “a modern airframe design, proven fuel-efficient engines and fully-integrated advanced avionics.”
Candidates reportedly included Airbus’ popular AS565 Panther light naval helicopter, and a derivative of AgustaWestland’s AW109 LUH. As a wild card, HAL’s locally-designed Dhruv began shore-based naval utility and SAR service in Kochi in November 2013. Navy disappointment with Dhruv was a key factor in pushing NUH’s existence, but since then, HAL has been working on a naval version with some anti-submarine capability, and has already fielded an armed Rudra ALH-WSI version for India’s land forces. The Navy has been very lukewarm about the Dhruv, citing stability issues, concerns about the ability to operate from ships, a lack of naval features like folding rotors, and the helicopter’s accident rate. Still, delays to NUH create time for more advances, fixes, and lobbying. In other words, a new opportunity for HAL.
Upgrade Programs include both of India’s current naval helicopter fleets.
Ka-28s. At present, India has just 4 flyable Kamov Ka-28 ASW helicopters. The other 6 Ka-28s have been mothballed for spares, while a mid-life upgrade that would restore the 10 to flying condition and give them modern sensors has been trying to get underway since 2008. Bids were finally opened in 2012, and a combination of Russia’s Kamov and Italy’s Finmeccanica won the INR 20 billion project. Contracts are set, and both the Cabinet Committee of Security and India’s CBI investigators cleared the deal, but nothing has been done.
Sea Kings. India also wants to upgrade its 17 Sea Kings with new composite main rotor blades to improve lift, and modern avionics to include a glass cockpit and automatic flight control systems. A 2008 proposal to use Israeli equipment as the upgrade package was vehemently opposed by AgustaWestland, which delayed things. That firm’s limited bidding ability in the wake of the AW101 VVIP helicopter dispute could exclude them now, leaving the door open for Israeli firms. If India needs a competition, Sikorsky’s S-61T contract for the US State Department offers another viable model. S-61 is the Sea King’s civilian designation.
NMRH/ IMRH Naval Helicopters: Contenders
The initial NMRH competition narrowed down to the NH90 NFH vs. the S-70B, then the S-70B alone, but subsequent buys could introduce additional options. Flight International:
“Defence ministry sources say the new aircraft will be equipped with potent anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare equipment including cruise missiles and torpedoes, and also be capable of being refuelled in flight. The type will operate from both naval vessels and land bases, they add.”
As a further wrinkle, India wants anti-ship missiles with a range of 100+ km, which is about 2-3x farther than most helicopter-launched missiles. They’re reportedly interested in Kongsberg’s stealthy Naval Strike Missile, or MBDA’s Marte-ER.
Sikorsky (winner, S-70B). The S-70 is an export designation for Sikorsky’s H-60 family, designed for international markets through options like federated avionics that can more easily accept country-specific items. Depending on the specific configuration ordered, a wide range of technologies can be included, making them anything from a basic ASW choice to a very advanced helicopter. What will an Indian S-70B naval helicopter look like?
For starters, it will carry an anti-ship missile, per Indian missile requirements. Kongsberg’s AGM-119B Penguin is the S-70B’s standard option, but doesn’t have the range India wants; switching to Kongsberg’s NSM or MBDA’s Marte-ER would require testing for aerodynamic compatibility, and additional integration work. On the flip side, the S-70B offers greater versatility, carrying up to 8 AGM-114 Hellfire short-range strike missiles for troop support ashore, or defense against fast boat swarms. DID has confirmed that qualified torpedoes include Raytheon’s MK-46, Eurotorp’s A244 Mod 3 (Singapore), and the new MK-54 torpedo (Turkey). India is already buying MK-54s for their new P-8i sea control aircraft fleet.
Sikorsky’s most produced naval helicopters are their MH-60R/S Seahawks. Lockheed Martin’s bid for India’s maritime patrol aircraft competition reportedly included 16 MH-60Rs (est. cost: $350-400 million), alongside 8 of its P-3 aircraft. They lost, but this MRH tender offers Sikorsky a way to get their foot in the door again, and subsequent buys may open up a broader market for their MH-60 family.
The MH-60R’s inability to be exported as a Direct Commercial Sale disqualified it from the initial NMRH competition. It also lacks an anti-ship missile of any kind. On the other hand, it carries a number of potent and attractive anti-submarine and surface warfare technologies. Sikorsky is reportedly looking to offer it for India’s follow-on buys, or it could assemble an S-70B offer that draws on some of those technologies. MH-60R submarine detection options include new processing systems for advanced sonobuoys, while the S-70B’s standard HELRAS dipping sonar is replaced by the same FLASH sonar used in the NH90-NFH. The S-70B’s standard is the AN/APS-143 radar family, which will also be used on India’s P-8i sea control jets; in contrast, the MH-60R uses the AN/APS-153, with inverse SAR mode for detecting submarine periscopes. MH-60R/S helicopters carry AGM-114 Hellfires for use against small boats and land targets, and will soon add APKWS 70mm laser-guided rockets, alongside the latest Mk.54 torpedoes. Australia has ordered some MH-60Rs to replace its S-70B-2s, and of course they’re the current and future mainstay of the US Navy’s ASW force, which ensures wide operational compatibility and future upgrades. The MH-60S is more of a naval utility helicopter, though it can also be armed with Hellfire missiles and APKWS rockets, or fitted with a limited Airborne Mine Countermeasures suite. Thailand has ordered a couple of MH-60S.
Sikorsky had a larger option, but they chose not to offer it here. Canada chose Sikorsky’s larger H-92 Superhawk as the basis for its CH-148 Cyclone naval helicopter, and full production of S-92 helicopter cabins is already outsourced to a joint venture with India’s Tata. Unfortunately, Canada’s program remains beset by delays and capability issues, including the lack of an anti-ship missile. Until its issues are fixed and the helicopter is performing in service, the MH-92 isn’t a viable export candidate anywhere. On the other hand, it could be a logical joint venture partnership offering for the proposed IMRH.
AgustaWestland/ Airbus (quasi finalist, NH90). The NH90 NFH medium naval helicopter finally entered full operational capability service in late 2013. AgustaWestland is the NH Industries consortium lead for the naval variant, but Indian politics may force another consortium member to take the lead. Note that a number of European navies have needed to upgrade and modify their ships to support the NH90 NFH, due to its size and fully-loaded weight.
The NH90 NFH can fire MBDA’s Marte Mk.2/S light anti-ship missile, and work is already underway to integrate the Marte-ER as a heavier and longer-range option. The AM39 Exocet used in Indian submarines isn’t an option, because of its effects on turbulence and the NH90’s center of gravity. Qualified torpedoes include Eurotorp’s MU90, Raytheon’s Mk.46, or BAE’s Stingray. NH90-NFH helicopters have been ordered by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Qatar.
NMRH specifications were too heavy for AgustaWestland’s Super Lynx naval helicopter, which fits a very wide range of naval vessels and is in service all around the world. Britain’s AW159 Lynx Wildcat offers even more advanced technologies. At the heavier 12 tonne end, the AW101 medium-heavy helicopter is used in both naval and search-and-rescue roles with Britain’s Royal Navy, Denmark, and Italy.
Airbus. Eurocopter is the top shareholder in the NH90 consortium, so they’re technically a participant in the NH90 bid, and they may need to step to the fore. Their own AS532/ EC725 Super Puma/Cougar also serves with a number of navies, including some customers near India, and there’s an earlier AS332F variant for ASW roles.
AgustaWestland’s entanglement in the AW101 VVIP helicopter’s legal proceedings left Airbus with a decision: push the NH90-NFH as a more popular and proven alternative with partial Airbus workshare, or push an all-Airbus design instead? The NH90’s disqualification from the initial tender seems likely to push Airbus toward a more exclusive path.
Rosoboronexport/ Kamov can play the commonality and standardization cards, because India’s Navy already uses its Ka-28s and Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters. On the other hand, it would appear to have the most limited set of upgrade options. India has delayed modernizing the handful of helicopters they have, and reports don’t indicate that they’re a contender, but Kamov is trying anyway.
Contracts & Key Events
2014 – 2017
AW101 VVIP deal blows up, affecting other competitions; Sikowrsky wins initial NMRH competition. NUH canceled and re-started as “Buy & Make India”; Dhruv ASW?
December 13/17: New Plan-Off the ShelfIndia has put forward a new $1.87 billion procurement plan for 24 off the shelf naval helicopters, following a collapse in talks with Lockheed Martin over 16 Sikorsky S-70B naval helicopters, and an urgent capability require for such rotorcraft by the Indian Navy. Negotiations with Lockheed were terminated following the expiry of the price bid in March, and subsequently the tender was withdrawn in April, an MoD official said. An Indian Navy official added that the service asked the MoD in July to consider procuring the helicopters from the US under the Foreign Military Sales program, however, the request was turned down because Indian procurement procedures do not allow for single-supplier preference but instead prefer global competitions through which weapons or platforms are selected based on lowest price. New Delhi is also planning a major $7 billion procurement for 123 naval multi-role helicopters in the 9- to 12.5-ton categories, that will be manufactured by a domestic private company with technology transfer from an overseas helicopter original equipment manufacturer. The winning helicopter model will then be manufactured by a private Indian company—to be decided by a separate competition—in an Indian facility, despite the fact that no private Indian company has ever built a helicopter platform, having only supplied subsystems.
June 21/17: A long-floundering deal to bring the Sikorsky S-70B multi-role helicopter to India has been dropped. 16 Seahawks had been ordered back in 2014 to fill a naval requirement but both sides have been dragging over the price as Sikorsky is unwilling to extend the validity of its commercial bid. The sale’s failure is likely to frustrate naval officials who are in need to fill an urgent requirement to replace 42 SeaKing helicopters bought from Westland helicopters.
August 5/16: India’s MoD has approved $294 million to go toward a program to upgrade its ten Ka-28 anti-submarine warfare helicopters. A 42 month modernization will see state-of-the-art western weapons and sensors integrated on a fleet that currently suffers from poor serviceability. First purchased in 1980, only four Ka-28s are currently operational.
Jan 26/15: RFP for additional 123-unit NMRH purchase expected. Sikorsky’s win of the NMRH contract, to build 16 helicopters, is just weeks old, but the Indian Navy will again put out to tender the next 123 units. Sikorsky does not appear to have won much of an advantage for the larger competition in its many-years fight for the first 16 helicopters. Making things more interesting, the Indian government, under nativist political pressure, is said to be preparing the RFP as a design and price competition with the manufacturing to be done by Indian firms. A new trade group, the Confederation of India Industry’s National Committee on Aerospace (CIINCA), has been loudly insisting on future contract structures that bring manufacturing to India.
At the heart of the long and somewhat embarrassingly
mismanaged helicopter procurements in recent years has been India’s domestic helicopter manufacturer HAL, whose light, single-engine choppers have served the Indian Army – which, in recent times, has not had much love for the manufacturer. The CEO of HAL is currently the chair of CIINCA.
Dec 5/14: Sikorsky wins NMRH. India’s ministry of defense and Sikorsky both announce that the firm has won a contract for 16 S-70B Seahawk naval multirole helicopters, with an option for another 8 helos. The deal is valued at Rs. 6,000 crore (about $1B), but the two parties still have to negotiate procurement details as well as attached logistics, support, and training. Indian officials use the increasingly popular “fast tracking” qualifier to signify they intend to expedite the conclusion of this acquisition.
The US has been putting renewed energy in its courtship of India, but in this case, Sikorsky had been left competing only against possible Indian inaction for the past month.
Nov 5/14: NH90 out. Sikorsky’s S-70B is now the sole bidder for India’s initial buy of 15 naval helicopters. The NH90 and S-70B both cleared the technical trials a couple of years ago, but the legal fights around the AW101 buy have resulted in a de facto ban on Finmeccanica outside of existing tenders – even though India lacks the evidence to bring a case (q.v. July 29/14). Despite the Attorney General’s opinion (q.v. Aug 7/14), the NH90-NFH has now been removed from the initial tender, leaving Sikorsky’s offering all alone.
Indian procurement laws generally prohibit contracts if there’s only 1 bidder. It remains to be seen whether the government will argue that there were more bidders (a rationale that hasn’t been effective in many similar cases where blacklisting left just 1 vendor), issue an override the law on the basis of emergency needs, or do nothing and sabotage a critical acquisition. Sources: India’s Economic Times, “Finmeccanica out, US’s Sikorsky joins Navy copter acquisition race”.
Oct 15/14: Helicopters – NUH. India’s new BJP government cancels the INR 90 billion NUH tender, and re-starts it on similar terms to the Army’s canceled RSH light helicopter contract. Instead of buying abroad and requiring industrial offsets locally, the competition would buy a foreign design that would be assembled in India by local partners.
Previous rumors (q.v. Sept 20/14) appear to have picked the wrong competition, though some news reports conflict. Note that despite the navy’s earlier unhappiness (q.v. Aug 20/12), HAL is now supplying Dhruv helicopters to the Navy for shore-based SAR and transport roles (q.v. July 20/14), and appears to be working on an ASW variant with DRDO (q.v. June 16/14). If this quote from Defense World is true, therefore, one might have legitimate cause to wonder about the NUH competition’s future:
The DAC has reportedly approved a proposal to allow HAL to manufacture 440 light utility helicopters to be supplied to the Army, Navy and Air Force. The HAL helicopter has not even been fully developed. According to unconfirmed reports, HAL is rushing to finish development of the prototype which it plans to unveil in time for the Aero India show scheduled to take place in February 2015.”
Note that HAL’s stalled LUH project is a single-engine helicopter like existing Chetaks, rather than the twin-engines demanded by NUH. Then again, the welfare of the people who have to perform night rescues in inclement weather isn’t generally a priority for state-run industry lobbyists. Sources: Defense News, “India Cancels Navy LUH Tender; Issues New Request” | Defense World, “Tender Cancellations Bring International Helicopter Procurements To A Halt In India” | India’s Economic Times, “Tender for 56 naval choppers scrapped”.
NUh canceled and restarted
Sept 20/14: Helicopters – NMRH. Indian media report rumors that the NMRH competition is about to be canceled. It would shift from foreign construction with Indian industrial offsets, to a “Buy & Make India” class of competition that requires foreign vendors to find a local partner and have that partner make the helicopters in India. That seems really odd, given recent (q.v. Aug 29/14) DAC approval for the initial NMRH buy.
A shift of that kind does two things, from the Navy’s perspective. One, it delays the project by pushing it back through the bureaucracy, and forces vendors to find a partner it can trust at that level and then re-calculate its bid. That bid is likely to be more expensive, and a shortage of local Indian capability means that manufacturing will also take longer. If confimed, the delay would certainly be measured in years. Sources: India’s Financial Express, “Anti-submarine choppers to be made in India soon”.
Sept 14/14: Helicopters – NUH. India Strategic explains some of the hurdles faced by HAL’s Dhruv, which seems to be trying to angle its way into the NUH contract, even though NUH was floated due to dissatisfaction with Dhruv (q.v. Aug 20/12):
“IAF has often expressed discomfort – and displeasure – at aircraft made/ serviced by HAL…. Its HPT-32 trainer was a poor product, and the Dhruv helicopter, made with French collaboration and parts, still does not inspire confidence, thanks to the number of crashes. There have been two crashes recently, and many IAF officers openly challenge HAL’s capability to give “perfection.” Former Air Chief NAK Browne had also said that HAL charged three times the cost for something that IAF engineers and technicians would do also more efficiently.”
The rest of the article repeatedly stresses the need for timely delivery, lest basic Indian capabilities crumble. Sources: India Strategic, “Choppers, Aircraft and Submarines: More Delays but Some Smiles”.
Aug 29/14: NMRH & ATAS. The new BJP government’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) makes a number of key moves, beginning with cancellation of the 197-helicopter LUH competition. At the same time, however, DAC’s clearances included the INR 18 billion foreign NMRH tender for 16-60 naval multi-role helicopters.
DAC also approved a INR 17.7 billion purchase of integrated Active Towed Array Sonar anti-submarine suites for 11 frontline warships: 4 destroyers and 7 frigates. There’s some confusion regarding that approval, however, and it’s hard to tell which public interpretation would be worse for Indian ASW capabilities in the medium term.
The ATAS effort had been focused on an advanced solution from Atlas Elektronik, but some reports cite a developmental ATAS from India’s DRDO research institute instead. In an era where major opponents are deploying quiet submarines that include Air-Independent Propulsion, that may not be enough to do the job. On the other hand, Ajai Shulka says that the ATAS will be Atlas Elektronik’s product, but the buy involves future warships, rather than additions to serving vessels: the Project 17A frigates that don’t even have a contract yet, and the Project 15B Bangalore variant of the new Project 15A Kolkata Class multi-role destroyers. The Bangalore Class isn’t expected to enter service before 2018, and Project 17A is in limbo. Sources: Business Standard, “Govt clears defence deals worth Rs 17,000 cr” | Defense News, “India Cancels $1 Billion Light Helicopter Tender” | Financial Express, “Make in India kicks off with defence deals” | Indian Express, “Centre scraps light utility helicopter tender, opens it to Indian players” | NDTV, “Modi Government Drops Rs 6000-Crore Foreign Chopper Plan, Wants ‘Made in India'” | Livefist, “Advantage Sikorsky As Indian MoD To Finally Open MRH Bids”.
Aug 7/14: Finmeccanica. An official legal opinion states that India can’t afford to blacklist Italy’s Finmeccanica, on strategic grounds:
“Attorney general Mukul Rohatgi has given the opinion that blacklisting Finmeccanica with its several subsidiaries, which are supplying a large number of weapon systems, radars and ammunition to the Indian armed forces, is not advisable since the ongoing CBI investigation and the subsequent trial in the VVIP helicopter case could take a decade or so to be completed…. If any Finmeccanica company has already been declared L-1 (lowest bidder) in a finalized tender process, then it should be allowed…. [but] none of the Finmeccanica firms should be allowed to participate in a new defence tender if the equipment in question could be supplied by more than one company outside the group…. There was another category of cases where some Russian defence suppliers to India had a Finmeccanica subsidiary as a sub-contractor. Rohatgi said such cases should be allowed to continue unhindered.”
He’s correct that Finmeccanica is Kamov’s sub-contractor for Ka-28 naval helicopter modernization, and is arguably in a similar position for the NH90, but that will take a formal political decision to affirm. Note also the secondary escape clause that requires more than one competitor before Finmeccanica could be banned from a tender. The NMRH competition could also go ahead under this provision, as long as India’s politicians accept that other options like AW159s, Ka-28s, AW101s, etc. don’t meet Navy requirements, and that HAL’s Dhruv ASW (q.v. July 20/14) isn’t a front-line option.
To put some specifics on Rohtagi’s opinion, a full Finmeccanica ban would cut off sources and spares for many Indian naval guns, a number of radars, the torpedoes needed by India’s new submarines, Ka-28 modernization, and other programs. The real bottom line is that it’s impossible to blacklist any major supplier, if any formal complaints take a decade to resolve. Sources: Times of India, “Finmeccanica ban can hit forces’ battle-readiness, attorney general says”.
Aug 6/14: Kamov. Russia may not be shortlisted for N-MRH, but they haven’t given up. A 2013 proposal to set up a joint venture and assemble Kamov helicopters in India still stands:
“Sources tell RIR that this proposal was discussed as recently as June when high level defence talks held in New Delhi that were led by Indian Defence Secretary R K Mathur and Rostec Chief Executive Sergey Chemezov.”
On the other hand, India’s issues with Russia tend to revolve around reliability and maintenance delays. Sources: Russia & India Report, “Kamov ready to supply seaborne helicopters to Indian Navy”.
July 29/14: Finmeccanica. Finmeccanica announces that the Italian Prosecutor has discontinued its investigations relating to India’s 2010 contract for 12 AW101 VVIP helicopters:
“The Prosecutor specifically acknowledged the non-involvement of Finmeccanica in the alleged wrongdoing, recognizing that that since 2003, Finmeccanica has implemented – and regularly updated – an organizational, management and audit model, sufficient to prevent unlawful conduct…. AgustaWestland S.p.A. and its subsidiary AgustaWestland Ltd., together with the Prosecutor, have agreed to apply for a negligible fine, whilst confirming the appropriateness of their internal control systems and specifically their non-involvement in the misconduct alleged by the Prosecutor. This decision is not in any way an admission of any wrongdoing or liability.”
Finmeccanica says that the fine isn’t an admission of guilt, but it may not be seen that way outside of Italy. On the other hand, without Italian cooperation, India’s CBI has already acknowledged that it doesn’t have enough to bring a case. There’s also an international arbitration case pending, and the firm can try to use the Italian prosecutor’s statements as a finding of fact. Sources: Finmeccanica, “Finmeccanica: Investigations into the Company relating to the AW101 helicopters contract with the Indian Ministry of Defence discontinued”.
July 28/14: Helicopters – NMRH. The investigation into India’s AW101 VVIP helicopter buy, which became a full-blown legal dispute between India and Finmeccanica in 2013, continues to stall India’s maritime helicopter buy. The introduction of a new BJP government doesn’t seem to have changed that yet:
“The Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC), chaired by defence [DID: and finance] minister Arun Jaitley on July 19, deferred the decision on the MRH helicopter project while clearing other military procurement proposals. The two contenders in the competition are the European NH-90 helicopters, which have Finmeccanica as a partner, and the American Sikorsky-70B choppers.
The contract is crucial for the Navy since it was to be followed by a bigger one for 123 helicopters, with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities as well as customized for amphibious assaults and commando operations, at a cost of over $3 billion…. While the Navy is on track to induct four to five warships every year over the next decade, it is fast running out of helicopters meant to detect, track and kill enemy submarines. The force currently has just 11 Kamov-28 [DID: 4 operational] and 17 Sea King ASW helicopters to defend its existing fleet of over 130 warships. While the Sea Kings are over 20 years old, the Kamov-28s are long overdue for a mid-life upgrade.”
The problem with waiting for the CBI investigation to conclude is that the CBI has a practice of keeping investigations going for years, with no result. They recently had to admit that they had no solid evidence in the VVIP case, though they may be hoping that recent charges against new senior officials might shake something loose. Unless they’re given a time limit, however, India’s naval posture will be crippled for years. Sources: The Times, of India, “Scam-wary govt defers decision on naval copters”.
July 20/14: Dhruv. India’s Defence Acquisition Council cleared a set of acquisitions worth Rs 21,000 crore (INR 210 billion / $3.493 billion). The largest share involves up to 56 light transport aircraft, but DAC also includes 32 HAL Dhruv helicopters, split evenly between the Navy and Coast Guard (INR 70 billion).
The Coast Guard in particular will be very happy to replace its Chetaks with Dhruvs, though they will need many more in order to become effective beyond Porbandar (q.v. July 19/14). The Navy has been less enthused about Dhruv. There has been some notion of outfitting it as an ASW helicopter for the Navy (q.v. June 16/14) but its limitations (q.v. Aug 20/12) remain. The November 2013 stand up of INAS 322 at Kochi demonstrates how the Navy is working within those limitations, by assigning Dhruvs to shore-based transport, Search and Rescue, and day/night patrol roles.
DAC project approvals also added 5 new supply vessels (INR 90 billion), 5 OPV ships (INR 20 billion), 5 fast patrol boats (INR 3.6 billion), and Search & Rescue equipment (INR 9 billion) to India’s approved list. Note what isn’t on the list: MRH helicopters. Sources: International Business Times, “What Does Indian Defence Get in Military Projects Worth [Rs] 34,260 Crore?”
Navy, CG buying more Dhruvs
July 19/14: Helicopters. India Today adds some more hard numbers behind the Indian Navy’s helicopter problem – and hence its ASW problem. they’re noted above. The article adds that:
“With a requirement of over 100 helicopters across different categories, and yet going nowhere, the navy’s predicament is clear. Said an MoD official, “The Indian Navy had to get 16 choppers as a direct replacement for Seaking 42A helicopters which came with the INS Viraat in 1987 and were decommissioned by the end of the century. Categorised as ‘Multi Role Helicopter’ acquisition, it is yet to take off even today.” Then there is the Naval Multi Role helicopter deal to replace the Chetaks which were first introduced into the Indian armed forces in the 60s, and the Naval Utility Helicopter deal. It is all hanging in balance.”
The Coast Guard has a similar problem, with under 20 ageing Chetak helicopters and 2 newer Dhruv machines all deployed solely at Porbandar, in order to keep an eye on Pakistan. The service was asked to gift 1 of its few helicopters to the Maldives, and 15 years worth of attempts to get new helicopters have come to nothing. Sources: India Today, “Exclusive: Navy, Coast Guard send SOS to Defence Ministry on helicopter crisis”.
June 16/14: Helicopters – Dhruv ASW? India is reportedly looking to outfit their locally-designed HAL Dhruv helicopter with some anti-submarine equipment from the state’s DRDO research agency:
“The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited-built ALH Dhruv is undergoing trials for carrying out role of detecting hostile submarines using systems developed by the DRDO, Defence officials said…. The system was put under trial at Vishakhapatnam and would be tried further before any final decision is taken on deploying the twin-engine chopper on board the carrier, they said.”
The Dhruv is in the same size and weight class as AgustaWestland’s Lynx, but the final result of this program is likely to fall rather short of capabilities possessed by the AW159 Wildcat, or of larger machines like the NH90 NFH or MH-60R Seahawk. On the one hand, adapting an existing HAL platform circumvents India’s broken procurement system, creating a near-term solution for their astonishing weakness in this area (q.v. March 31/14). It also creates a platform that can be improved over time, which is good for India and its industry.
On the other hand, providing sub-standard protection to the flagship of one’s naval force is a terrible idea if it’s the only proposed solution. The question is whether the long-discussed foreign tender (q.v. Feb 25/14) for helicopters like the AW159 will also go forward, in order to equip platforms like India’s high-end destroyers (q.v. Oct 15/13) and add a higher tier of shipborne ASW protection for key assets. Sources: IBD Live, “Dhruv chopper likely to be deployed on-board INS Vikramaditya”.
May 16/14: ATAS. Ajai Shulka says the reason that operational safety was the reason that India’s new Vikramaditya aircraft carrier was joined by an armada of Indian warships for the last leg of its journey to Karwar. The problem is the lack of an effective towed sonar on Indian surface combatants, due to obstruction by the defense bureaucracy. Coming as it does on top of the MoD derelict performance with respect to anti-submarine helicopters, it creates a huge naval weakness that would doom India’s carriers in a shooting war.
The Indian Navy has been trying to import an Advanced Towed Array Sonar (ATAS) since the mid-1990s, but the Ministry of Defence has blocked it in favor of DRDO projects that went nowhere. The Nagan project was finally shut down in 2012, but DRDO just pulled a switch and started a new ALTAS project in its place. As a result, 21 destroyers, frigates and corvettes bought since 1997 lack key sonar systems: 3 Delhi Class destroyers, 3 Kolkata Class destroyers, 6 Talwar Class frigates, 3 Brahmaputra Class frigates, 3 Shivalik Class frigates, and 4 Kamorta Class corvettes. They must depend, instead, on an Indian HUMSA passive array towed sonar with limited capabilities.
MoD approval for a limited 6 ATAS buy was finally granted to an exasperated navy in 2009, but baseless complaints of wrongdoing left Atlas Elektronik’s systems in limbo, despite investigations that cleared the procurement. It remains to be seen whether changing control of the MoD away from the Congress Party will change anything. Sources: India’s Business Standard, “Warships in peril as defence ministry blocks sonar purchase”.
March 31/14: Helicopters – Ka-28. The Ka-28 force is in sad shape:
“The Navy is today being asked to make do with four Ka28 helicopters that have the technology of mid-80s for training pilots, doing ASW roles against modern submarines for the five Rajput Class destroyers as well as the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya,” said a source.”
The other 6 Ka-28s have been mothballed for spares, while a mid-life upgrade that would restore the 10 to flying condition and give them modern sensors has been trying to get underway since 2008. Bids were finally opened in 2012, and a combination of Russia’s Kamov and Italy’s Finmeccanica won the INR 20 billion project. Contracts are set, and both the Cabinet Committee of Security and India’s CBI investigators cleared the deal. Defence Minister Antony’s office has been sitting on that for over a month, however, while playing extreme hardball with AgustaWestland over the VVIP helicopter deal. Meanwhile, the Sea King fleet has problems of its own, and a proposal to buy up to 16 modern naval helicopters from foreign sources remains stalled. Sources: Daily Mail India, “Navy left ‘defenceless’ after being forced to ‘make do’ with outdated Soviet hardware”.
Feb 25/14: No Helicopters. India’s Ministry of Defence clears a whole series of defense projects: upgrades for 37 airbases, modernization of 5 ordnance depots, 4,000 hand-held thermal imagers for soldiers, 5,000 thermal imaging sights for tanks and infantry combat vehicles, 44,000 light-machine guns, 702 light armored multi-purpose vehicles, and 250 RAFAEL Spice IIR/GPS guided smart bombs. The deals not done?
A program to buy M777 howitzers, 56 transport aircraft to replace the ageing Avro fleet, produce 4 amphibious LPDs – and 16 naval multi-role helicopters to restore an effective anti-submarine capability. With elections looming, it will take some time before any of them are restarted. Sources: Times of India, “Decision on four key defence deals put off”.
2008 – 2013
ASW weakness exposed; NUH RFP a vote of non-confidence in Dhruv; Sea King upgrades needed.
Oct 15/13: ASW weakness. India’s anti-submarine issues continue to surface, which is a serious weakness for a fleet air arm and for a carrier. How serious is it?
“The Navy has given an insight into how it is placed during its ongoing exercise with the Royal Navy off the Goa coast. The Royal Navy’s HMS Westminster – a type-23 frigate known for its advanced anti-submarine capability – is taking part in the exercise Konkan. The frigate is equipped with Merlin helicopters – the maritime version of triple-engine AgustaWestland EH-101 that is used extensively by the Royal Navy… The Indian Navy has pitched a Delhi class destroyer, which is a formidable platform, but it carries only one helicopter although it is capable of operating two. The only helicopter on the destroyer is Chetak, which has a limited role in search, rescue and communication. It cannot carry out advanced anti-submarine or anti-surface operation.”
That isn’t what you want defending your carrier. Sources: Daily Mail India, “Chopper shortage rattles Indian Navy during joint exercise with British fleet”.
Aug 20/12: Helicopters – NUH RFP, etc. India issues its $1 billion NUH RFP for a base of 56 twin-engine light helicopters under 4.5 tonnes, with induction slated for 2016. The helicopters will operate from shore, and aboard ships that range from OPVs to aircraft carriers.
Core NUH utility roles that current Cheetah/ Chetak fleets can’t currently handle include day/night SAR and CASEVAC roles in adverse weather, and transport duties that include underslung cargo. India also wants the NUH to replace some Westland Sea King roles, however, including anti-submarine warfare with a light torpedo or depth charge, and the ability to carry rockets and machine gun pods. Aviation Week adds that:
“A procurement manager with the Indian navy indicates that the NUH has to meld several roles into one modern new platform, after the indigenous naval ALH Dhruv failed to deliver a light, multirole shipborne platform with an ASW capability.”
India Strategic goes farther:
“The rotors have to be foldable so that the machines can be moved to their hangars in the limited space available…. Significantly, the Navy had found the HAL-made Dhruv unsuitable because of excessive vibrations in the rotors as also their large size. The air draft generated by a flying machine and its stability are crucial for landing and takeoffs from moving ships, some of which sail at around 30 knots.”
Other activities are also underway:
“The navy is also finalizing an RFP for a follow-on N-MRH to acquire 75 more helicopters as part of a fresh bid. The N-MRH will progressively replace the navy’s Westland Sea King Mk. 42B fleet…. The navy is also set to solicit bids for a long-delayed upgrade of its Sea King fleet, with original manufacturer AgustaWestland expected to compete against? Israel Aerospace Industries’ Lahav Div. In addition, the navy will shortly begin an effort to upgrade its fleet of Ka-28 Helix ASW helicopters.”
Sources: Aviation Week, “India Floats New Naval Utility Helicopter Requirement” | India Strategic, “Navy floats $ 1 billion RfP for utility Helicopters”.
Aug 17/12: Sea Kings. India’s Mk.42B Sea King utility/ASW helicopters have readiness issues, which is a problem because India has a shortage of working anti-submarine helicopters. Upgrades have been delayed, and India is considering packages from AgustaWestland and an Israeli consortium. Upgrades to the 20 or so helicopters would include new avionics, electronic warfare suites, new communication kits, and an all-new weapons suite with anti-ship and anti-submarine ordnance. Sources: SP’s Naval Forces, “Indian Navy Sea Kings upgrade process soon”.
Sept 9/08: Tender. Flight International reports on the tender:
“India’s defence ministry has issued a tender for 16 advanced multirole naval helicopters to companies including AgustaWestland, EADS and Sikorsky, with its initial requirement likely to later expand by a further 44 aircraft…. The Indian navy meanwhile plans to acquire five more Kamov Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopters [DID: ordered in 2009], and is exploring the possibility of conducting mid-life upgrades to its Ka-28 and Westland Sea King transport helicopters.”
Sources: Flight Global, “India launches tender for up to 60 maritime helicopters.”
ASW Helicopter Tender
Readers with corrections, comments, or information to contribute are encouraged to contact DID’s Founding Editor, Joe Katzman. We understand the industry – you will only be publicly recognized if you tell us that it’s OK to do so.
Current Helicopter Force & Issues
- Air Force Technology – Ka-27/28 and Ka-29 Helix Naval Helicopters, Russia.
- Bharat Rakshak – Kamov KA-28 Helix-A.
- Bharat-Rakshak – Westland Sea King.
- Wikipedia – 2013 Indian helicopter bribery scandal.
- DID – MH-60R/S: The USA’s New Naval Workhorse Helicopters.
- DID – NH90: Europe’s Medium Helicopter Contender.
News and Views
- DID – Indian Naval Air Defenses: Another Avoidable Crisis. Poor underwater defenses against submarines, and poor aerial defenses against missiles, is not conducive to keeping your navy afloat.
- India Today (July 19/14) – Exclusive: Navy, Coast Guard send SOS to Defence Ministry on helicopter crisis.
- Daily Mail India (March 31/14) – Navy left ‘defenceless’ after being forced to ‘make do’ with outdated Soviet hardware.
- IBN Live (Dec 30/13) – The Indian Navy’s helicopter plans and purchases.
- Sikorsky (Oct 24/13) – TATA Sikorsky JV delivers first fully indigenous S-92 helicopter cabin. “The India operation is not only assembling cabins but also producing all parts needed for the assembly, before shipping the cabins to the U.S. for aircraft completion and customer delivery.”
- Defence Forum India (Oct 6/12) – Sikorsky S-70B – Right choice for Indian Navy Multirole Helicopter program. The illustrated H-60/S-70 variant family tree is very helpful.