The presentation of the President’s Colours to the Naval Air Arm by the President of India on 6 September 2021 was due recognition of the stellar role played by Naval aviation in the last 70 years and its growing importance in India’s present and future maritime security architecture. It also focussed attention on an arm that finds less mention when assessing India’s naval capability which is often measured only by the numbers of sea going platforms. As India spreads its wings (literally and metaphorically) in the ocean spaces of the Indo-Pacific and beyond, the importance of naval aviation is set to grow exponentially in enhancing India’s maritime security and its power projection capability as an integral part of an aircraft carrier centric blue water navy.
The Naval Air Arm, like much of the Indian Navy, had humble beginnings in 1951 with the induction of 10 Sealand aircraft which was followed by the transfer of a few Super Constellations from the Indian Air Force for maritime surveillance. It was the commissioning of India’s first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in1961 and the commencement of carrier borne flying operations that shaped the future of the arm. In the 1971 war, the golden jubilee of which is being celebrated this year, the daring strikes by carrier launched Alize and Seahawk aircraft played a significant role in decimating Pakistan’s war fighting capability leading to the birth of Bangladesh. The Indian Navy’s relatively modest Carrier Task Force led by INS Vikrant established complete sea control over the Bay of Bengal and contributed in no small measure to India’s finest military victory.
The arm continued to consolidate its strengths through the 1970s and the 80s with the induction of the IL-38 and TU 142M Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft from the erstwhile Soviet Union, the Sea Harrier V/STOL fighter jet and the Seaking Type 42 helicopters with a potent Anti surface and Anti submarine warfare capability from the UK. The Kamov-25 and the Kamov-28 ASW helicopters followed from the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Navy’s workhorse, the Allouette-3 light helicopter which was being built indigenously as the Chetak was being regularly inducted. From 1972 onwards, with the commissioning of India’s first Leander class frigate, INS Nilgiri, helicopters became an integral part of all major surface platforms. This added a new dimension to India’s surface warfare capability. The commissioning of India’s second aircraft carrier INS Viraat in 1987 further consolidated the Navy’s aviation skills in the air, off the deck and on the ground. This was followed by a lull in new acquisitions, the effects of which are being felt now with a capability deficit in certain core operational capabilities. This is being addressed to some extent with the induction of a new generation of aircraft but more perhaps needs to be done.
The Present and the Future
Naval aviation is presently poised on a cusp with a mix of contemporary and legacy fixed wing and rotary wing platforms. While there is impressive capability in some areas, there are shortcomings in others which need to be addressed with the urgency they deserve. Time, tide and technology wait for no one. Hence, in addition to addressing the present, it is equally important to look at inducting technologies and equipment to future proof naval aviation for at least the next decade or so. A brief overview on the present and future will indicate that while naval aviation is poised on an upward trajectory, the angle of ascent may need to be made steeper.
The acquisition of the Boeing P8I Long Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) aircraft from the USA under the US Government’s FMS (Foreign Military Sales ) programme which replaced the earlier Soviet era TU-142M aircraft has greatly boosted India’s maritime reconnaissance capability. India was the first recipient of the export version of this aircraft and it entered service in the Indian Navy at almost the same time as it did in the US Navy. The first aircraft arrived in India in end 2012 and since then another nine aircraft have been added though the IN would ideally like to have at least 16. Fitted with an advanced weapon and sensor suite, they have more than proved their worth in enhancing India’s Maritime Domain Awareness in the Indian ocean region and the larger Indo-Pacific with their ability to keep large swaths of the ocean under surveillance. They had also been deployed in the search for the missing Malaysian airliner MH 370. In their Anti-Submarine warfare role, they are equipped with active and passive sonobuoys, a magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), infra red detection capability to detect heat signatures of dived submarines and are armed with the Mk 54 torpedo to deliver kinetic effect. The knowledge that a platform like the P8-I is in the air would definitely inhibit an enemy submarine’s options underwater.
The P8I’s maritime reconnaissance capability is complemented by the IL-38 ‘May’ maritime reconnaissance aircraft which was acquired from the erstwhile Soviet Union in the 1970s. These have been regularly upgraded and have both anti-ship and anti-submarine capability. As recently as February 2021, an IL-38 carried out a successful anti-ship missile firing in an exercise.
India’s medium range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) is in need of urgent upgradation. Presently, the navy has a less than satisfactory capability with the Dornier 228 aircraft being woefully inadequate for this purpose in peacetime and totally unsuited for deployment during war. India’s coastal security requirements and its efforts to secure its littoral maritime neighbourhood requires a far more capable platform. More than a decade has elapsed since the first RFI for six MRMR aircraft was released by the MoD in 2009. This was increased to nine aircraft in 2012 but very little progress has been made since then.
Carrier-borne Fixed Wing Aircraft
The Russian Mig 29K is the only carrier-borne fighter aircraft in the Indian Navy operating from the lone aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. The second aircraft carrier, Vikrant, built indigenously at the Cochin Shipyard and likely to get commissioned by the end of 2022 has also been designed to embark the Mig 29K. This aircraft carries an impressive arsenal including guided missiles and provides a considerable strike capability unlike its predecessor, the British Sea Harrier which was primarily meant for air defence with minimal strike capability. The transition from air defence to maritime strike also marks an operational shift in the navy’s concept of carrier operations with larger aircraft carriers and more capable strike aircraft.
The Navy is actively pursuing its fighter aircraft programme to replace the Mig 29K by the end of this decade. It is currently in the process of evaluating the responses to its global tender for 57 fighter jets while at the same time, DRDO is going ahead with the design of a ‘Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter’ (TEBDF). This follows the successful trials of the naval prototype of the indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas from a shore-basedcarrier deck facility in Goa. The Chief of the Naval Staff is optimistic that this aircraft will be ready by 2026. Therefore, if by the turn of the decade, both these programmes materialise the Indian Navy will have a very effective and potent carrier-borne fighter wing.
Rotary Wing Multi-Role Helicopters
The recent purchase of 24 Sikorsky MH-60 R (Romeo) multi-role helicopters which are expected to begin arriving in India within the next two years will alleviate the critical capability deficit in the navy’s airborne anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare capability. Armed with a contemporary sensor suite of radars, sonar and sonobuoys and supported by an arsenal of torpedoes, missiles and bombs, these helicopters will greatly enhance the navy’s offensive capability at sea. Obsolescence and the depletion in force levels caused by the lack of timely upgradation and replacement of the ageing Seaking Mk 42B fleet has led to a situation wherein the navy’s powerful surface combatants, despite being capable of embarking two multi-role helicopters each are handicapped by a lack of adequate numbers.
A multi role helicopter in the 10 ton category (viz., Seakings and the MR-60) is a very versatile platform. It is an asset in whether operating with independently with its ‘mother’ ship or as part of a Carrier Task Force with its range and ability to operate well ahead of the surface formation to detect a submarine or surface threat and effectively neutralise it either with its own weapons or by vectoring an attack by the Fleet from stand-off ranges. The addition of these helicopters will enable the Indian Navy to effectively counter the increased submarine activity by both our traditional adversaries in the Indian Ocean and in India’s strategic maritime neighbourhood.
It has been more than a decade since the Navy projected a requirement for 123 multi-role helicopters. The thrust on indigenisation without the industrial capability has led to the present situation where these 24 are at best an interim solution. Little is heard of how the overall requirement will be met in an acceptable time frame. Naval multi-role helicopters are complex flying machines and if indigenous construction is the aim, it is time some immediate and concrete steps are taken to build both, industrial capacity as well as capability, failing which we will continue to be deficient in numbers and will have no cjhoice but to resort to imports.
Naval Utility Helicopters.
The Navy plans to acquire 111 Naval Utility helicopters (NUH) through the Strategic Partnership (SP) Model wherein an Indian SP will be selected by the MoD and will build 95 indigenously in collaboration with a foreign OEM. In the interim, the Mod has also released a RFI earlier this year to lease 24 new NUH to meet the Navy’s current requirement. Leasing of equipment has been introduced in the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 as an option to meet the military’s immediate operational requirement with minimum financial outlay. The NUH is meant to replace the Allouette – III which is indigenously manufactured as the Chetak for the Navy and has been in service for over four decades. Light utility helicopters of less than 5 tonnnes are the workhorses in the air and an essential component of shipborne naval aviation. These are embarked on smaller naval platforms and because of their compact size are versatile and are well suited for Search and Rescue at Sea, vertical replenishment, transfer of personnel and stores between ships, acting as a communication link, evacuation of medical casualties and most significantly, they are well suited for low intensity maritime operations.
Advanced Light Helicopter
The much vaunted and indigenously designed and developed Dhruv ALH was found sub-optimal for shipborne operations when it was finally built. After much to and fro-ing between the Navy, the MoD and the builder HAL, the IN commissioned its first Dhruv squadron in 2013 and the second with three Dhruv Mk III helicopters earlier this year. Their shipborne utility is still limited and they may not yet be ready for a combat role from a ship’s deck.
The Kamov Series ; Ka-25, Ka-28 and Ka-31
The first of the Kamov series of helicopters with their distinct counter-rotating rotor blades entered the Indian Navy in the early 1980s with the Ka-25 accompanying the Kashin class destroyers in the 1980s. The Ka-28 ASW helicopter followed and complemented the Seaking helicopters. Post-upgradation, it will continue to offer limited ASW capability. The Ka-31, was inducted in and introduced Airborne Early Warning (AEW) capability at sea though its limited range was a constraint.
The Indian Navy began operating unmanned aerial vehicles as far back as 2002 with the induction of the Heron and the Searcher UAVs from Israel. These UAVs were capable of unmanned surveillance, reconnaissance ISR, photography, intelligence, communication and over the horizon targeting. Launched from ashore, their control was passed on to a ship at sea specially designated for the purpose. The advancement in technology and the improvements in autonomous technologies has overcome several operating constraints and modern UAVs are not only much more autonomous but also armed. The IN has been negotiating the purchase of an armed UAV called the Guardian manufactured by the US firm General Atomics, USA. Also called UCAVs, with the ‘C’ standing for Combat, these will add a vital ability to deliver kinetic effect. Two Guardian drones have been operating with the IN and the purchase of another 14 may be just a matter of time. The UCAV is a potent force multiplier which can effectively complement offensive naval operations and will soon be an integral part of any operational naval deployment.
The Aircraft Carrier Conundrum
The Indian Navy has always been projecting the requirement of three aircraft carriers to ensure that at least two are operationally available at all times. However, this has never materialised to-date. The proposal for building a second indigenous carrier of about 65,000 tons displacement is not getting the right traction in Delhi’s South Block and reflects a lack of adequate understanding about the role of these platforms in both war and peace. Aircraft carriers are floating air bases that can travel up to 500 kms in a day and project a country’s power and protect its interests anywhere on the globe. It is not a coincidence that all five permanent members of the UN Security Council continue to invest in aircraft carriers. The present deployment of a British Carrier Task Force (CTF 21) led by its new aircraft carrier, Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific is meant to showcase Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s vision of a post-Brexit Global Britain. If India desires to be a leading Indo-Pacific maritime power in the next decade capable of holding its own in the intense contestation for maritime dominance, its navy needs at least three aircraft carriers. An aircraft carrier can take over 10 years to build and become fully operational with its full flight component. Hence that investment has to be made now.
In the last 70 years Indian naval aviation has made tremendous strides and continues to do so. As the Indian Navy prepares for future challenges in a networked environment the importance of the airborne element is set to increase. The changing nature of the maritime threat, the multitude of maritime security challenges, India’s role as the net security provider in the Indian Ocean region and its own maritime interests underline the importance of ensuring a powerful and contemporary naval aviation capability across the entire spectrum of roles and missions, be it maritime domain awareness, fighter strike, helicopter operations or autonomous surveillance and attack capability. Naval aviation is still largely dependent on imports despite the call for indigenisation and ‘atmanirbharta’. It is therefore time that the government created an enabling environment for the Indian defence aerospace industry to venture forth and deliver the capability that the security environment demands.