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Seahawks are Coming

October 18, 2019 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd) Photo(s): By UTC Aero
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


Sikorsky MH-60R Seahawk helicopters

Going by news reports, the Indian Navy is set to acquire 24 x MH60R Seahawk Anti-Submarine Helicopters at a probable cost of $109 million per helicopter – total cost about $2.616 billion. The cost includes accessories, spare parts, technical support and maintenance facilities. The Seahawks can be used both for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and for attacking surface vessels using hellfire missiles these helicopters are armed with. The media elaborates that despite the higher costs of these helicopters, they are tipped to be more value for money. For detecting submarines, these helicopters would be equipped with cutting edge sonar and radar. The radar would be capable of detecting submarines travelling on the surface or just below the surface. Considering that modern nuclear submarines travel just below the ocean surface to get rid of exhaust fumes, the radar will be especially effective. These helicopters are the naval version of US Army's Sikrosky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter and can be used for search and rescue operations.

The US Seal Team Six had used UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters in the raid to kill Osama bin-Laden in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. ASW involves using computers, sonar, and radar to search for submarines, which involves staring at a screen most of the time while manipulating the sensors and computers to detect and locate subs. Once you have a solid location fix, you can launch a torpedo and sink the enemy vessel. The MH-60R uses a sonar that operates in active (broadcasting) and passive (just listening) mode. The sonar system consists of dipping sonar and sonobuoys, which are dropped and communicate wirelessly. The dipping sonar is lowered into the water from the helicopter using an 806 meter (2,500 foot) cable and winch. The MH-60R is also equipped with a radar system for detecting subs on the surface or just beneath the surface. Modern non-nuclear subs often travel just beneath the surface with only the periscope or snorkel above water to provide air for the diesel engine and gets rid of the exhaust fumes. MH-60Rs can also perform SAR (search and rescue) work where, to obtain maximum airtime and carrying capacity, the sonar and all its associated electronics is quickly and temporarily removed. The MH-60 can hover low enough to deploy a line to people in the water and winch people aboard. Delivery of the Seahawk helicopters to the Navy is expected to within one year. In addition to the MH-60R Seahawks, India is also procuring 15 x CH-47F heavy transport helicopters from the US, some of which have begun arriving in the country. Also, 22 x AH-64E helicopter gunships will begin arriving later during 2019.

The US State Department in its notification on sale of 24 x MH60R Seahawk helicopters to India, told the US Congress that this proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the US by helping to strengthen the US-Indian strategic relationship, India being a major defence partner which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region. The notification further said, "The proposed sale will provide India the capability to perform anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare missions along with the ability to perform secondary missions including vertical replenishment, search and rescue, and communications relay. India will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense", adding, that the proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region. For decades our Navy has had problems with procuring new helicopters but procurements hit roadblocks because of red tape and a corrupt and unaccountable bureaucracy. Delay also was because of efforts to build an indigenous helicopter to meet the Navy's needs in this category of helicopters. But these efforts too were plagued by political and bureaucratic bungling.

The closest indigenous effort was Dhruv helicopters and Navy did commission the first Dhruv squadron in 2013. However, Navy's needs of SAR and ASW since complaints against the Dhruv helicopters included lack of engine power and poor reliability. The Navy desperately needs to replace about 30 of its older Sea Kings, which the MH-60s have replaced in many countries. The Sea Kings have a max speed of 209 km an hour, max load of 3.5 tonnes, max altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) max range of 1,200 km and max endurance of about six hours. The MH-60R has a max speed of 270 km an hour, max load of 1.9 tonnes, max altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet), max range of 830 km. Induction of 24 x MH60R Seahawk helicopters will provide significant increase to the Navy's combat capability. Master of cloning, China has developed the 'Harbin Z-20 helo, which is replica of the US Seahawk helicopter. The Z-20 has a fly-by-wire flight control system. Powered by a pair of turboshaft engines, the Z-20, reportedly designated WZ-10, bears striking resemblance to the Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk family in terms of general layout, aesthetics and size. Interestingly, China's PLA does operate demilitarised version of the Black Hawk sold by the US in the 1990s. The Z-20 was reported to have entered limited service with the PLA in late 2017 or early 2018. Open-source imagery suggests China is also developing a maritime variant of the Z-20 for use on board the PLA Navy's warships. Tentatively designated the Z-20F, photos show a gray Z-20 with modifications for shipboard operations, such as a cut-down rear horizontal stabilizer, and a tail-wheel that has been relocated forward to the front of the tail boom, similar to the Seahawk helicopters of the US Navy. The Z-20F is expected to perform ASW, SAR and other shipboard operations on the Chinese Type 055 cruisers and aircraft carriers, as also on board some of the later Type 052D destroyers of China's naval force.