The last decade has seen the resurgence of air power at sea, with attention being focused on the oceans and seas that surround us. During this time, the yeomen service rendered by the Boeing P8 I has been acknowledged. The extensive deployment of this maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft all over the Indo–Pacific and in particular, in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), provided, through its 360 degrees radar, an online update of Maritime Domain Awareness, not only to the Indian Navy platforms but significantly to all the participants of the MALABAR Exercise.
It was confirmation of interoperability as also the exertion of pressure on our northern neighbour by reminding them that consequences of expansionist agenda over our land borders would be met with fury at sea through which transit their energy resources. The ISRO built naval communication satellite GSAT-7 has been playing a stellar role for the Indian Navy since 2013 and now its utility has become a pillar of information exchange with agencies within our country and those of our strategic partners.
Cooperation, the key
Comprehensive military cooperation with Quad nations has been put to full use by the naval aviation units both airborne and ground-based. LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA saw the operation of partner nations’ aircraft from Indian airfields and vice versa. The Passage Exercise and later two-phased MALABAR Exercises witnessed extensive operations of aircraft carriers and fighter aviation at the extremity of our areas of interest in the Indo-Pacific. Significantly, Australia participated in Malabar Exercise for the first time as part of Quad. These joint exercises provide assurance of security to the littorals of Indo-Pacific, who have been subjected to lawless assertion and expansionism.
Anti-submarine fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft of these four countries used their sensors at almost all choke points in the IOR giving a sense of insecurity to adversary’s submarines. Naval UAVs were extensively deployed for constant update of Maritime Domain Awareness round the clock particularly in the Arabian Sea, monitoring linkages between the naval platforms of two adversaries. The decision of the US Administration to sell Predator UAVs to India and its operations at sea reflects the future intentions of our Government and the Navy. UAVs have become a very important component of our robust MDA network.
There was prolonged discourse in public domain regarding necessity of second indigenous aircraft carrier (after Vikrant in her new avatar). The debate was put to rest by the Chief of Naval Staff asserting its key role in entire context of strategic and tactical operation at sea. Indian Navy’s philosophy of operations is centred on two carrier task forces, one each in eastern and western seaboards of India. This has led to serious relook at the necessity of aircraft carrier by the government.
Indian Navy steps up
In the middle of heat generated during the Ladakh face-off, the Modi government approved the purchase of 24xLockheed Martin MH 60R ASW helicopters, in a USD 905 million deal. These will replace the ageing Sea King helicopters which have outlived their technical age. MH 60 R are very advanced anti-submarine helicopters in service with US Navy. The overall cost, including the weapons package, is likely to be USD 2.6 billion. It would be a G-to-G agreement and Lockheed Martin has been asked to transfer at least 3 undelivered helicopters of the US Navy to India, clearly reflecting the urgency of its necessity to the Indian Navy.
The strategic partnership manufacturing of Naval Utility Helicopters and Multirole helicopters for the Navy has been long outstanding. The decade which has just begun will witness these gaps filled. The process of indigenous procurement of aerial platforms in India has commenced with the order of 83 Tejas aircraft for the Air Force and UAVs for the Army.
Navy has floated RFI for 57 deck-based fighters. In all probability, IAF and Navy could come together to meet their fighter aircraft requirements from the same stable, which would then make sense for technology transfer and financial viability of the project.
The SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) Doctrine, India’s Act East policy and the Malabar series of exercises all point towards the Indian Government’s attention shifting towards the Indian Ocean. The sea-based theatre missile defence platforms would soon be ready and become integral to the national missile defence system of the country.
A second indigenous aircraft carrier, deck based twin-engine fighter aircraft, ASW helicopters, utility helicopters, Predator UAVs and replacement of ageing IL 38 aircraft are all on the cards. There are opportunities for Naval Aviation to become 400+ aircraft maritime air power and operate in concert with the Army and Air Force in distant locations where lies India’s interest. These projects will propel Prime Minister Modi’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat.
The creation of jobs and subsequent prosperity by lifting India to a USD 5 trillion economy will partially rest upon the expansion of maritime air power. India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific will be best served by a partnership of four navies totally interoperable and supportable anywhere in the region. Indian Navy’s aviation will be at the forefront of the new security architecture to maintain stability and security, ensuring rule-based international order and free and open seas. This is the path of the new paradigm.