MH 60R ROMEO – A Long Felt Need Begins to Get Addressed- Way Ahead

Sub Title : The Anti Submarine Warfare helicopter is a critical need of the Indian Navy

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 2 May/June 2019

Author : Lt Gen VK Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 60

Category : Military Affairs

: May 25, 2019

The Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) helicopter is a critical need of the Indian Navy. India is acquiring 24 X MH 60 R Seahawk helicopters built by Lockheed Martin. As the Dhruv has not been able to live up to our Navy’s expectations in this

Regard, we need to focus more efforts towards gaining indigenous expertise in the field of manufacture of ASW helicopters because nations which are front runners in the field are unlikely to share niche technologies, so necessary in the equipment. Hence Make in India as far as ASW helicopters are concerned is very unlikely

On 03 Apr 2019, the United States (US) approved the sale of 24 multi-role MH 60 R Seahawk maritime helicopters to India at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion.

This article puts the above deal in perspective and highlights how the operational need for this kind of a helicopter, which had become ‘critical’ over the years, will start to get addressed by the very many combat virtues  which MH 60 R brings along especially in the anti-submarine role. The article also presents a viewpoint on the way ahead as regards anti-submarine helicopters

At the outset credit must be given to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the definitive maturing of the Govt-to-Govt (G2G) method of defence procurements anchored in the Foreign Military Sale (FMS) procedure of the US. An Expression of Interest (EoI) sent for this helicopter by the MoD in Nov 2018 has resulted on the approval by US President in Apr 2019; all in a matter of six months. This is unprecedented.

In addition, the statement from the US State Department (in the context of MH 60 R) about boosting the Indian Navy’s anti-surface and anti-submarine  warfare operations in the face of an expanding Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)  points  to ‘other factors’ that aided the above decision

(discussed later).

How did the need for an Anti-Submarine Helicopter become Critical?

In order to appreciate the build up  to the current level of criticality, one needs to go back into time by about five decades. In that, post the 1965 Indo Pak War, while Pakistan invested heavily into modern submarines and long range torpedoes, India opted to go in for anti-submarine capability. Consequently, in 1969 a procurement deal for 6x Augusta Westland Sea King Mk 42  anti-submarine helicopters was finalised with Britain. The helicopters started to arrive by about Jul 1971, a few months before the next war with Pakistan.

Capable of a maximum speed of 208 km/hr, a massive operational range of 1230 kms and a very impressive maximum take off weight of 9707 kg, Sea King  was a front-runner anti submarine helicopter of its times. The Sea King 42 series was especially tailor-made for the needs of Indian Navy.

For instance, the Sea King Mk 42 A  was fitted with a haul-down system for operating from small ships. Sea King Mk 42 B had advanced anti-submarine features like dipping sonar and advanced avionics. It also had two anti ship Sea Eagle Missiles with an operational range 110 km. The helicopter was upgraded to be dual-capable both in anti surface  as well as anti submarine roles.

A dipping sonar is an  acoustic sensor device that is lowered into the water from a hovering ASW helicopter and recovered after the search of underwater vessels is complete. It is also called a dunking sonar. Sea King 42C was especially designed as a search and rescue/utility transport version with nose-mounted Bendix search radar. As a utility platform 42C was also capable of troop carriage.

Initially all went very well. In the period 1972-74 Sea King became the INS Vikrant’s primary anti submarine helicopter. Sea King 42 A, modified to be deployable on smaller vessels was deployed on the Nilgiri class frigates after suitable modifications on  the deck. Besides the initial six ordered in 1971, another six Sea King helicopters were ordered in 1974 and three more in 1980. In the period 1988 to 1992 a total of 20 Sea King 42 B were delivered to Indian Navy.

Then came the imposition of sanctions by the US in 1998, post the Indian nuclear tests, Operation Shakti-98 (Pokhran II). These hit the Sea King fleet adversary. The Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) M/s Westland in compliance with the sanction provisions refused to maintain any US made component on Sea King. The flow of spares support from the OEM thus dried up. The situation kept becoming critical by the year. A stage came when the spare parts started to get cannibalised from the existing fleet to keep an ever decreasing number airworthy.

While, President Bill Clinton relaxed the sanctions in Dec 2000, it would take nearly a decade thereafter for the HAL and M/s Augusta Westland to sign an agreement for maintenance and upgrade of Sea King Helicopters. In any case by this time the fleet of Sea King was virtually grounded as indigenisation of parts ex Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was but a trickle.

It was also reported that India was intending to talk to Canada to take over four of its Sea King CH 124 helicopters which were to be de-commissioned by that country but which still had residual operational life. The outcome of these talks is not known.

Be that as it may, in the period from 2009-10 till  2017-18 the serviceability and hence the operational availability of Sea King helicopters took a nose-dive with only a handful of machines really remaining airworthy.

Early in 2002, Dhruv the Multi Role Utility Helicopter from HAL entered service. Armed with maritime radar Supervision 2000 with a range of 200 km, Dhruv was basically seen as a replacement of the ageing fleet of Chetak (Allouette III) Light Utility Helicopter  inducted in eighties.

Dhruv was also claimed to be capable of ASW role besides the traditional roles of reconnaissance and armed patrol. The Indian Navy however found Dhruv unsuitable in the ASW role due to problems in its performance of  folding blades and maintenance issues. Therefore, even after the induction of Dhruv the void of ASW helicopters continued to stare  in the face as the numbers of S 42 Bs further dwindled.

With Dhruv being found unsuitable for ASW role, the ageing Chetak fleet only suitable for light supply and search and rescue roles, the availability of Russian Ka 28 helicopters (another helicopter with limited ASW capability) dwindling down to a single digit and S 42s in the dire straits as described above, the situation became really critical as regards the ASW helicopter capability of the Indian Navy (IN). An India Today report of Jul 2014 stated that only 20% of the ASW helicopter slots on various Frigates and Destroyers were actually filled with ASW machines .

The Journey upto MH 60R

It is not intended to go into the long winding journey of about 12years (2007-2019) that saw several efforts by the IN to boost its ASW helicopter capability. Suffice to say that MH60R itself, was identified through a competitive bidding process involving multiple vendors. The deal could not be sealed for a decade owing to multiple reasons.

Finally, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in Aug 2018 approved the purchase of 24 naval multi-role helicopters capable of anti-submarine role at a reported cost of $1.9 Billion. This was a part of a larger deal for $6.6 billion that also included the purchase of 111 Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH).

With MH 60R already identified as a front runner through a decade of competitive bid deliberations, India in Nov 2018 sent an Expression of Interest (EOI) to  US for the procurement of 24 MH 60 R helicopters along with supporting ammunition and equipment to include 10 Hellfire anti-ship Missiles, 38 Precision kill weapon systems, 30 Mk 54 torpedoes and an inert version of Naval Strike Missile (NSM) of range 180km.

As stated, it is indeed a record of sorts that an EOI sent in Nov 2018 resulted in an approval by the US State department on 02 Apr 2018, the reasons however are not far to seek

In that, while the oft quoted ones in favour of India may include; the position of a major defence partner; US perception of India’s clout towards political stability, peace and economic progress in the Indo Pacific and South Asia region; the positive fallouts of the trio of strategic agreements to include Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (COMCASA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), the continuing 2+2 dialogue and more; however the most prominent and closest to cutting the deal  is a new sense of resurgence and convergence brought about in the Foreign Military  Sales (FMS) procedure of the US for processing defence sales to friendly foreign countries and the Indian Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2016 anchored on the “enabling platform” of Make-in-India.

A lot of credit for bringing about this convergence must go to the Institutional arrangement between India and US called the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative

(DTTI). This arrangement which came about in Dec 2012, was meant to be no treaty or a law, it was to be a flexible mechanism to ensure that senior leaders from both the countries were persistently focussed on the opportunities and challenges associated with growing the defence partnership.

DTTI aimed to transform bilateral defence relationship into one that was limited only by independent strategic decisions, strengthen India’s defence industrial base, explore new areas of technological collaboration and expand US India bilateral ties. As stated, much of the current convergence between FMS and DPP must go to the steady progress made by DTTI  over the years gone by. It may be in place to state here that India (as if in a state of building positive responses) has just set up an Indo-Pacific Division in its Foreign office. So much for the US approval, per se.

What Capability MH 60R Brings?

MH 60 R manufactured by M/s Lockheed Martin is indeed a front-runner multirole helicopter. It was no surprise that the said machine emerged as the selected choice in a vigorous competitive bidding process that lasted  nearly a decade.

Living up to its tag of a multi-mission helicopter, MH 60 R is capable of ASW, Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW), Search-and-Rescue (SAR) missions, Naval Gun Fire support (NGFS), Surveillance, Communication Relay, Logistic Support, Personal Transfer and Vertical Replenishment (VERTREP). For the last quoted, it has a cargo hook  capable of lifting 2721.55 Kg  (6000 lb).

MH 60R has a Multi-Functional digital cockpit that is capable of showing full-colour multi-function mission and flight displays which are both night-vision goggle compatible, as well as, sunlight-readable. For accurate navigation it can rely both on the Global Positioning System (GPS), as well as, the Inertial Navigation system (INS)  using its dual-embedded GPS-INS navigational suite. For target detection, it has day-night capability in terms of a Day Sight and a Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) coupled with a Laser Range Finder (LRF).

Communication is one of the strong muscles of MH 60R. In that,  it has a fully digital Link 16 Communication Suite enabled across voice, radio and satellite communication and a Ku band link for data transfer. This Link makes MH 60 R compatible across all NATO platforms. This will  provide a seamless inter-operability with many NATO block countries with whom India regularly conducts maritime exercises (like US, UK, France, Australia, Japan etc).

Though India has only asked for Hellfire Missiles, Torpedoes and the inert version of Naval strike Missile (NSM), MH60 can also carry ATK Mk 50 /Mk 46 active and passive lightweight torpedoes as anti-submarine weapons .

Another strong feature of MH 60R is its Electronic Warfare ( EW) arsenal which directly translates to its degree of survivability in the hostile EW environment. In the EW suite, it has a Missile Warning System (ATN AK/AAR 47) which alerts the pilot if the machine is being illuminated by a missile guidance radar. It also has a Laser Warning System (for similar alert if illuminated by a laser) and a  jammer to deflect the infra-red or heat seeking missiles if launched against it. Towards passive EW means, it has  a chaff, flare or a decoy dispenser (AN/ALE 39) to avoid detection and tracking by adversary’s radars.

Another very special feature of MH 60 R is its multi-mode Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR). Unlike normal radar or an SAR which produces the target image as an “unidentifiable bright blip” on the screen by way of a moving pixel, ISAR produces a high resolution 2D image of the target being tracked. The image is so sharp, that the pilot can not only identify the target clearly, but also, can decide the likely area on the target  where the weapons can be trained for an optimal kill.

As to the physical survivability, not only can the helicopter take on  small arms fire but its rotor blades are also hardened to take on a hit from a 23mm cannon. 23 mm is a common calibre used in air-to-air or ship-to-air gun fire. Its fuel tank is self-sealing and most of the systems, viz, hydraulics, electronics and fire control etc, have multiple redundancies built into them.

Performance wise, MH 60 R brings a significant enhancement in several key features in comparison to its predecessor, viz, Sea King S 61. For instance, it can do 270-333 Km/hr (Sea King 208 Km/hr). It has a higher capability in maximum take off weight (implying more arsenal and more payload). However, being a heavier machine designed for lifting heavier payloads MH 60 R looses out in range (MH-834 Km, S 61-1230 km) and rate of climb (MH 1650 ft/sec, S 61 2020 ft/sec) with respect to S 61. In sum and with all factors considered, MH 60 R as a package is qualitatively superior to its predecessor.

This puts in place the overall significance of MH 60R in the perspective.

Happening Times

Apart from MH 60 R these are happening times in the field of naval helicopters as a whole.

HAL Dhruv helicopter is continuing to replace the old vintage Chetak helicopters. In a first of its kind the MoD in Feb 2019 has issued an EOI for short listing the potential Indian Strategic Partner and foreign OEM for the procurement of 111 Naval Utility Helicopters (NUH). 95 of these will be made in India. These helicopters will replace the Chetak helicopters and will be utilised for Reconnaissance, Search and Rescue, Casualty Evacuation, Armed Patrolling and in Low Intensity Maritime Operations ( LIMO) .

End Note

It will be apparent from the above, that while there is an overall positive forward movement in the naval helicopter domain under Make in India, this really does not embrace the anti-submarine capability domain.

Experts believe that an ASW helicopter platform is  by far the most complex rotor-based machine to take to the skies. Most of its technologies are in the niche  sector and a few front-runner nations who have such a capability won’t like to part away with the same.

This quite explains that while the NUH deal could easily ride the Make in India vehicle with the OEM agreeing to make 95 of these helicopters here in India, it did not happen with MH 60R, it did not happen when Sea Kings were dwindling and ASW capability was getting dwarfed by the day.

The answer therefore lies in making the ASW ourselves since no country  is likely to share technology in this niche sector. If that be so, the key to indigenous ASW helicopter is through HAL Dhruv. It is pertinent to note here that the initial claim of HAL was that Dhruv will be ASW capable but the Navy did not find it up to the mark owing to its “size, weight and maintenance issues”.

It is for the HAL to come good on the ASW front sooner than later  by addressing the issues which the Navy has expressed. The bottom line is that ASW helicopters are unlikely to be cast in the “Make in India” mould. We have to have OUR OWN!. In any case 24 MH 60R at $2.6 billion can only addresses a part requirement. Another stark reality is that Sea King fleet is only headed southwards and nowhere else. It is therefore high time TO MEASURE UP TO OUR OWN ASW.